Talk about mixed signals. The ending of The Awakening takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster.
As the last chapter begins, there is little sign that Edna intends anything more than some solitary time at Grand Isle. Sure, it's the off-season, and no one's around, but she seems pleasant and chatty with the people she sees. She even asks Victor Lebrun for some dinner and to set up a place for her to spend the night. That's not exactly the kind of behavior we expect from someone who is about to commit suicide.
Finally, Edna pops on down to the seashore, takes off her bathing suit, and feels pretty dang great.
She put it on, leaving her clothing in the bath-house. But when she was there beside the sea, absolutely alone, she cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her.
How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! How delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known. (39.24 – 39.25)
This exhilarating gesture of freedom—standing naked on a beach—is compared to a birth, but words such as "strange" and "awful" hint to the reader that something more than naked time is going on here.
As Edna swims out to sea, she becomes overwhelmed by the elements. "[It] was too late," the novel tells us, "her strength was gone." Without coming out and saying it explicitly, the novel strongly suggests that Edna dies.
So, Edna dies, but does she do so intentionally? Does she commit suicide or is it the accidental death of an inexperienced, overwhelmed swimmer?
It depends on what you think is going on in Edna's mind as she swims out to sea. Here are two options:
Edna does not intend to commit suicide. Instead, she embraces, a little too enthusiastically, Mademoiselle Reisz's feeling that the artist needs the "courageous soul that dares and defies," lines she remembers as she swims out.
She wants to push herself, do something extreme, in much the same way that people bungee jump or skydive for kicks. By flouting social convention and starting up life as a sexually and artistically independent woman, she has already experienced a kind of social death. To the rest of society, she no longer exists because she doesn't conform to any social roles, like wife or mother.
This "death" has enabled her rebirth into the free woman she now is. The physical death she experiences at sea is really just a shadow of the first social death. Her swimming out to sea is her final gesture of defiance at the world, the final assertion of her individual spirit. It's just that she gets carried away—literally, out to sea.
Edna does intend to commit suicide. The childhood memory that dominates the last scene is a memory that returns from the first part of the novel. It's a memory that includes the mysterious cavalry officer who was her first romantic obsession.
This romantic obsession is placed next to some parting words from Robert: "He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand," Edna thinks. Edna commits suicide because she realizes that there is no place in this world for a woman who asserts her erotic needs and her independence from society.
So what do you think? Was it intentional or not? Or would you rather revel in the ambiguity?