Surviving Edna: A Reading of the Ending of The Awakening, by Robert Treu
College Literature, 27, (Spring 2000): 21-34)

Reviewed by Nicole Lake

In his article "Surviving Edna: A Reading of the Ending of The Awakening," Robert Treu condemns interpretations of the novel that take for granted the heroine's suicide in its final pages. Indeed, his reading depends on the indeterminacy of Edna's fate, for he argues that the ending resists closure as an aesthetic strategy for opening up possibilities beyond the scope of the text. Treu suggests that the novel as a whole is structured around the presence of competing ideological positions between which Edna vacillates throughout the course of her awakening. As Professor Railton explained in his lectures, these opposing discourses are sometimes embodied in the characters that surround her in the novel; for example, Mademoiselle Reisz, with her artistic independence from men, and Madame Ratignolle, the consummate "mother-woman," "represent opposite possibilities within [the] culture," neither of which "leads to satisfaction" as a viable option for Edna (Railton lecture as posted). Yet rather than understanding the ending as a definitively identifiable event that reveals Chopin's official resolution of the individual/social, romantic/realistic, and other conflicts that have informed the narrative, Treu insists that the author's decision to neither confirm nor deny Edna's death signals her refusal of the very possibility of such closure to the debates she has occasioned. To this end, Treu invokes the Bakhtinian concept of heteroglossia, or the existence of a multiplicity of voices that nevertheless "'rejects dialectical forms of thinking, which always move toward a higher unity of synthesis, in favor of dialogic open-endedness, the impossibility of closure'" (Treu, 23). More than just a plethora of distinct and competing voices within a single text, heteroglossia implies a free interplay between those voices without interference from the author or narrator, a "conflict between 'official' and 'unofficial' languages" in which neither is privileged (Treu, 23).
Indeed, not just the perspectives of The Awakening's characters interact according to dialogic principles, but heteroglossia applies to the narrative voice, as well. Instead of providing subtle hints to the reader about the superiority of realism to Edna's avowedly romantic notions, Treu would argue that the narrator's intrusions into the text serve merely to complicate the stark oppositions between competing ideologies. For example, he observes, as did Professor Railton in his lectures, the amazing power that lies behind the voice of the sea, as in the following passage:
The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. (Chopin, 689)
Yet instead of reading this as an instance of the author's entrance into the text to participate in Edna's perspective, as Professor Railton suggested in class and as I argued in my earlier posting on Chopin, Treu understands the use of present tense verbs as the author's attempt to contain the influence of a transcendent voice that threatens to overwhelm the dialogism she has so carefully constructed (Treu, 25). Rather than liberating Chopin's text from a coercive force that has seduced generations of critics into believing that the novel must end with Edna's suicide, Treu's interpretation of this passage reinscribes the idea of absolute, remote authorial control against which he has argued. I would like to suggest that the narrator's participation in the text at this point, her admission of her own vulnerability to the formlessness of the ocean, itself a symbol of female fertility and generation, actually aligns her with the readers and, indeed, with Edna herself, who never manages to reach a conclusion within the space of the novel. In entering into the logical and emotional indeterminacy of the novel, Chopin encourages the reader to do likewise and resist the very same either/or mentality that lies at the root of Edna's intense sufferings, whatever their denouement.
Treu understands the open ending of The Awakening as a final argument for the heteroglossia of the text and its refusal to reach an ultimate conclusion. He points out that "Bakhtinian analysis ... [would] see[] the last pages as a final chorusing of the book's complex heteroglossia, rather than as Edna's psychic confusion" (Treu, 28). Instead of inviting the reader to make a direct inference of an authorially-sanctioned ending somehow gleaned by following textual clues, Treu argues that the final passage, and indeed The Awakening as a whole, ultimately places the agency in the hands of her readers, encouraging them to entertain a range of possibilities in dialogue with one another. "By ending the novel at a moment of artistic opening rather than dialectic closure, [Chopin] declines the privileged position of the author and allows the reader to contemplate possibilities rather than make final judgments" (Treu, 32). To take this analysis a step further, by extending the strategy of heteroglossia beyond the actual text, Chopin engages her readers in Edna's quest for meaning, recreating in us her struggle with the various voices and possibilities generated by the novel. This ultimate indeterminacy anticipates the critical process itself, in which different readers offer competing interpretive discourses to create an inconclusive and polyphonic body of work that extends the meanings and techniques of Chopin's novel. Insofar as Edna's evaluating and questioning consciousness is displaced onto readers, and indeed, to the extent to which it has the potential to revitalize the way we as scholars approach our own critical activities, she cannot indeed die at the end of the novel, but flows past her ending to become one of the dialogic voices of unofficial discourse in our own heads.