Chapter 39 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 834

Summary
Back in Grand Isle, Victor is working and Mariequita is watching him. He is talking about the dinner at Edna’s exaggerating every detail. Mariequita thinks he is in love with Edna, and she becomes jealous and sullen but then lets Victor reassure her.

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To their surprise Edna appears before them, looking tired from her trip. She tells them she is just here for a rest and that any room will do. Then she asks what time dinner would be served.

Edna tells them her intention to go to the beach and take a swim. They warn her that the water is too cold, but she says she would dip her toes at least.

Edna walks down to the beach without thinking about anything in particular. She had thought all night, long after Robert left. She acknowledges that after Alcee she would find another lover, and she understood how this would affect Raoul and Etienne. She also understood clearly what she meant the day she told Adele she would never sacrifice herself for her children.

Edna became filled with despondence, realizing there was nothing and nobody she wanted except for Robert. Shealso realized that one day even that thought would fade, and she would be totally alone. Her children appeared before her like antagonists who were trying to enslave her, but she knew how to elude them.

All these things Edna thought about during her night on the couch. She isn’t thinking of anything on her way to the beach. The voice of the sea is, as always, seductive. She sees a bird with a broken wing falling to the water.

Edna puts on her bathing suit but then takes it off, standing naked by the sea, feeling like a newborn creature. She walks into the water, into its sensuous touch. She keeps going, growing more tired. She thinks of Leonce and the children and how they thought they could possess her. She thinks that Mademoiselle Reisz would sneer, saying she is not a true artist because she does not possess a courageous soul.

Edna knows that Robert did not, and would not, understand her. She is far out now and feels that old moment of terror but it passes. She hears her father and sister’s voices, and she hears the clanging spurs of the cavalry officer she had been infatuated with; finally she hears the hum of bees and smells the musty odor of pinks.

Discussion and Analysis
This chapter opens with Victor exaggerating Edna’s dinner party and her charms to the extent that Mariequita thinks of her as the “grand dame” of New Orleans. This is contrasted with the tired, defeated Edna who shows up at Grand Isle.

Critics debate over whether Edna’s suicide was an act of passive defeat, an act of supreme courage, an acknowledgment that a woman seeking independence and selfhood has no viable alternatives in that society, or an acknowledgment that she doesn’t have the psychological resources to resist the life society wants to foster on her. This is up to the reader to decide for him or herself.

Edna wasn’t thinking on her way down to the beach because she was probably already in a hopeless stupor. She had been up all night thinking about what her life would be like if she stayed married for her children. She could have one affair after another, but she understood the effect that would have upon her children. She could end up married and alone, right back where she started. She refuses to give up what she had worked so hard for—her passion and independence.

If she didn’t have children, she could just leave Leonce and do as she pleased. She knew there was no way to escape the “soul’s slavery” her children put her into, except one.

Even if Edna were to leave Leonce, though, there is no other man out there who is any better. Both Alcee and Robert deny her independence as much as Leonce does. This contributes to Edna’s feeling that she has no choice but to kill herself.

As Edna reaches the shore, she sees a bird with a broken wing heading back down to the water. This broken bird symbolizes her defeat. She has been broken by society and does not have the courage to fight anymore. And the seductive sea, as it has throughout the book, is calling her, offering rebirth and sensual pleasure. It is still the symbol of romantic possibility.

When Edna first thought about solitude and pictured the naked man on the beach, it was a sad picture. However, Edna feels “delicious” standing alone and naked by the sea. She is defeated, but there is some sense of power and freedom in the choice she is making. Nobody owns her anymore.

Of course it is questionable whether suicide is ever a true choice or just a passive giving up. Again it is up to the reader to decide.

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