Why Does Edna Commit Suicide?

One potential reading of Edna’s suicide is that she considers it her only means of escaping her life as a wife and mother. At this point in the story, Robert has rejected Edna, refusing to embroil them both in the inevitable scandal that would come from Edna leaving Léonce. Worse than the heartbreak, Edna realizes that Robert does not truly understand her. Her initial attraction to Robert comes from him treating her like a human being, but he nevertheless assumes he knows what’s best for her. This painful moment breaks Edna’s illusion that she could be in love with a man who saw her as truly an equal individual. To make matters worse, Edna realizes that even if she has an affair or leaves Léonce for Robert, she cannot escape her responsibilities to her children. As she approaches the beach, she imagines her children as “antagonists,” the direct opposition to her happiness. For all her rebellions against society and attempts to discover herself as a person, she realizes that motherhood is not something as easily avoided or escaped as men. Her only choice, therefore, is suicide. This final escape shows her choosing to end her life over allowing others to choose how she lives it, a final expression of autonomy.

However, we can also read Edna’s swim as a moment of transcendence. Over the course of the novel, Edna wears fewer and fewer layers of clothing, symbolizing her casting off the role society has placed upon her. Before entering the water, she now stands naked, and the narrator describes her as a “new-born creature,” suggesting rebirth. More evidence for this reading comes from examining the description of Edna’s first swim in Chapter X, which prefigures her suicide. In this swim, Edna pushes herself farther and farther away from shore as if “reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.” Although the phrase “lose herself” carries the connotation of death, the word “unlimited” mitigates any hopelessness because it suggests power and freedom. In this earlier chapter, Edna stops and panics only when she sees how separated from the others on shore, representative of society, she has become. In her final swim, Edna actively wants to leave the shore, metaphorically escaping society. 

Finally, we can read Edna’s last swim as a futile act of defiance. As she swims out into sea, she specifically thinks of the ways she rejects the prescriptive ideas of who she should be. The narrator comments that Edna slowly tires over the course of her swim, which suggests that instead of trying to commit suicide, she is trying actively to continue swimming. The juxtaposition between Edna’s frustration and her diminishing energy creates an image of a woman trying to push against the current of society, wearing herself out in the process. In the second-to-last paragraph, the narrator observes, “The shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone.” The shore, in this case, represents the rest of society. Caught in the waves, Edna can neither press onward in her rebellion or return to the life she has left. Her last thoughts are of her childhood, of her traditional and overbearing father and her sister who has recently married, signifying the impossibility of truly escaping the dictates of patriarchal society.