One day Edna bumps into Robert in her favorite garden café, which is nestled in the suburbs of New Orleans. Robert reacts with uneasiness and surprise at the unexpected encounter but consents to stay and dine with Edna. Although Edna had decided to act with reserve if she were to see Robert, she cannot help but be plain and honest with him. She expresses her disappointment at his own seeming indifference, telling him he is selfish and inconsiderate of her emotions. She emphasizes that she is not afraid to share her opinions, however “unwomanly” he may think them. He responds by accusing her of cruelty, of wishing him to “bare a wound for the pleasure of looking at it, without the intention or power of healing it.” Retreating from his display of anger, Edna returns to pleasantries and thoughtless banter.
The two go to the pigeon house, arriving after dark. When she returns to the room after leaving to wash up, Edna leans over Robert as he sits in a chair, and kisses him. In response, he takes her into his arms and holds her, kissing her back. He confesses that his trip to Mexico was an attempt to escape his love for her. In Mexico, he says, he fantasized that she could become his wife, that perhaps Léonce would “set her free.” Edna declares that the fantasy is reality, because she is no longer one of Léonce’s possessions and will give herself to whomever she pleases. Robert is shocked, perhaps even dismayed, by her announcement.
Edna’s servant interrupts to tell Edna that Adèle is in labor and wants Edna to be with her. Edna leaves, assuring Robert that she loves only him and that they shall soon “be everything to each other.” He begs her to stay, able to think only of holding and keeping her, but she tells him to wait because she will return.
Adèle is irritable and exhausted as she awaits the arrival of the doctor. Edna begins to feel uneasy as memories of her own childbirth experiences surface but seem removed, vague, and undefined. Although she stays by her friend’s side, she desperately wants to leave. She watches the scene of “torture” with a feeling of “inward agony” and a “flaming, outspoken revolt against the ways of Nature.” When the ordeal is over, Edna kisses Adèle good-bye, as Adèle whispers earnestly, “Think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children!”
“Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.”
Doctor Mandelet, who is also Adèle’s doctor, walks Edna to the pigeon house. He voices his concern that another, less impressionable, woman ought to have stayed with Adèle. He asks Edna if she will go abroad with Léonce, and Edna replies that she will not and that she refuses to be forced into anything anymore. She begins to say that no one has any right to oblige her to do what she does not wish, excepting, perhaps, children. Although Edna trails off incoherently, the doctor grasps her underlying mindset. He notes sympathetically that youth is given to illusions and that he sees sexual passion as Nature’s “decoy” to secure mothers for the propagation of children. Dr. Mandelet adds that the passions given to us by Nature are on a level removed from moral considerations. Before parting, Doctor Mandelet tells Edna that she seems to be in trouble, and that if she would ever like to come to him for help, he would be a most understanding confidant. Edna responds that although she is sometimes upset, she does not like to speak of her despondency. She explains that she simply wants her own way, although she acknowledges the difficulty of this, especially when it means she must “trample upon the lives, the hearts, the prejudices of others.” She asks the doctor not to blame her for anything, and he leaves, replying that he will blame her if she does not come to speak with him but that she should not blame herself, “whatever comes.”
Edna sits on her porch, brooding over Adèle’s final words, and vowing to think of her children the following day, after her rendezvous with Robert. To her dismay, Robert has left, and there is a note that reads, “I love you. Good-by—because I love you,” in his place. Edna stretches out on the parlor sofa and lies awake all night.
The next day, on Grand Isle, Victor and Mariequita flirt and discuss Edna’s dinner party while Victor does construction work. Suddenly, they see Edna walking toward them. It is still long before the summer season, but Edna explains that she has come alone to the island in order to rest. She makes plans to have lunch with the pair and then walks down to the beach for a swim, ignoring Victor and Mariequita’s claims that the water is much too cold. The night before, Edna had thought of her one desire, Robert, and how one day even he would disappear from her thoughts. She had thought of her indifference to Léonce. She had thought of her consideration for her children, whom she had begun to see were the only real shackle binding her soul to the slave-like existence she has led for so long.
As she walks along the beach, Edna’s thoughts are completely different. She spies a bird with a broken wing flying erratically before crashing into the surf. She finds her old bathing suit, still hanging on its peg from the summer, and puts it on. Once she reaches the water, she removes the garment with no one in sight. For the first time in her life, Edna stands “naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her.” She feels like “some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.” She swims out into the water without a glance backward, thinking of Léonce, of her children, of Robert, and of Mademoiselle Reisz’s words: “The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies.” She thinks of Robert’s note to her and muses that he had never understood her and never would—perhaps Doctor Mandelet would have, but now it is too late. Eventually exhaustion overtakes her, and memories of her childhood fill her thoughts as she surrenders to the expanse of the sea.
By the time Robert returns from Mexico, Edna has ceased to think of herself as a possession. Yet, Robert’s abstention from Edna shows that he continues to understand male-female relations as those between a possessor and a possession. Robert’s complaints of Edna’s “cruelty” reveal that he doesn’t see any way for the two of them to be together because he sees society as exerting an inescapable force. Robert does not perceive that Edna has not grasped this for herself and, thus, considers her continued pursuit of him to be intentionally malicious and vain.
Only when Edna and Robert finally speak honestly of their feelings for one another does Edna begin to undergo the tragic, final revelation of her awakening. Robert admits that he had fantasized about Edna becoming his wife, had harbored wild ideas of Léonce setting her free. He thus regards the central issue of his relationship with Edna to be the problem of ownership and the transfer of ownership—not the notion of love, or of simply being together. While Edna thought she could use her relationship with Robert to liberate herself from convention, and saw a life with him as one of the goals of her liberation, she now finds that to run to Robert is to run straight into the arms of the old male-female power dynamic.
Edna laughs at Robert’s conventional views and scoffs at the idea of Robert claiming her as a possession. She tells him, “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not . . . If he were to say, ‘Here Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at both of you.” Robert is shocked by the boldness of this statement, and perhaps also dismayed by the disregard it expresses for him and his own needs; Edna seems to mock Robert’s profession of loyalty. Robert does not want a conventional affair, nor does he want to be just another step in a purely selfish quest for independence. Despite his love for Edna, he cannot respect her love for him if it can be realized only in adultery.
Yet Robert, too, feels passion. We read that Edna’s “seductive voice, together with his great love for her, had enthralled his senses, had deprived him of every impulse but the longing to hold her and keep her.” Thus, though he knows that the relationship cannot end as they wish, he begs her to stay. Robert’s passion allows him some insight into Edna’s own mindset but not enough: he feels torn between his love and his sense of moral rectitude, but his passion is not strong enough to make him decide in favor of his love. Edna does not fully realize this until she discovers Robert’s note. When even Robert, whose love matches the sincerity and desperation of her own, refuses to trespass the boundaries of societal convention, Edna acknowledges the profundity of her solitude.
Edna realizes that she is still trapped, shackled to society and its expectations. What provides these shackles are not the men in her life but the boys. Her final despondency does not result from her fear that she will forever remain a dependent but from her thoughts of those who depend upon her. Thus, she says to herself, “To-day it is Arobin; to-morrow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn’t matter about Léonce Pontellier—but Raoul and Etienne!” Edna has freed herself from Léonce, and she can avoid Robert if she thinks he would become similarly controlling. Her children, on the other hand, make her feel “overpowered.” She imagines that by virtue of their very weakness, their vulnerability, their reliance upon her for their own reputation and social happiness, they seek “to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days.” Edna’s suicide affirms the claim she made to Adèle that for the sake of her children she would sacrifice her life but not herself. To return to her miserable marriage with Léonce for the sake of her children would be to betray the essence of her being. By killing herself, she avoids self-betrayal while still preserving her children’s reputation. Indeed, Edna seems to have carefully arranged her suicide so as to make it appear an accident: by specifying to Victor that she will be lunching with him at the house, she ensures that he will believe she had intended to return from the water.
It is unclear whether Edna’s suicide is meant to show her failure or her success. On the one hand, the suicide is an act of ultimate submission to the power of social mores. Instead of running away somewhere and living alone, perhaps supporting herself as an artist in the manner of Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna is able to think only of her sons’ reputations and how they would be treated were she to leave. One could argue that such a surrender is generous—that Edna does not want to “trample on the little lives” of her sons and cause them pain. Equally convincing is the argument that the suicide is a cowardly rather than generous surrender, that an honest act of generosity on Edna’s part would be to live on as an independent and strong woman, serving as an extraordinary example to her sons and thus helping them to undergo their own liberations.
The suicide can also be seen as Edna’s rebellious assertion of her own will: because Edna refuses to be tied down and to sacrifice “herself,” she bravely sacrifices her life for the sake of maintaining her integrity and independence. By drowning herself, she ensures that her last act is a self-determined one.
The imagery in the novel’s final passages underlines the ambiguity of its ending. We read that “a bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.” This description matches Mademoiselle Reisz’s earlier warning, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.” If the bird Edna sees retains its earlier symbolism, then this vision is an indication of Edna’s failure to transcend society and prejudice. If, the bird is a symbol of Victorian womanhood, then its fall represents the fall of convention achieved by Edna’s suicide.