Spoiler Alert: The Awakening and Crewel
Trigger alert: suicide
I finished reading The Awakening for the first time about four weeks ago. I think when I started it, I was expecting feminist erotica—titillating, empowered romance.
While it was certainly titillating and empowering in its own metaphoric way (I don’t think I’ve ever read more vague yet obvious references to a sexual awakening without there even being a kiss in the first three-quarters of the book), what I found was that it was less about sex and more about autonomy. I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting the suicide at the end. And part of me wanted desperately to cry and to see in her death the tragedy of a life lost . . .
But I couldn’t.
All I could see was the freedom that she had found—both the freedom of life and the freedom of death.
It was the same feeling I got at the end of “Thelma and Louise,” when I wanted to scream as much from horror as from joy.
“Something’s, like, crossed over in me and I can’t go back, I mean I just couldn’t live.”
I know that feeling oh so well. I don’t often talk about my views of suicide because they tend to be hugely unpopular. I’m not even sure I’m prepared to get into all the nuances of my thinking here. Suicide is a deep topic, complex no matter how you approach is. But suffice it to say that I don’t always see suicide as a tragedy, as weakness, or as giving up.
Sometimes it can be exquisite. Sometimes it can be noble. Sometimes it can be a victory.
I can picture the reactions of some who are reading this, the horror and disgust they feel at my words. I’m sure some are going to accuse me of saying various things that I haven’t said. Others may attack me out of their own pain. And that’s okay. Those who don’t want to hear what I’m trying to say won’t be able to hear what I’m saying. I know they don’t understand—they can’t understand. And I accept them where they are.
But for some, their hearts are whispering, “I know what you mean.” They, like me, have experienced what Edna experienced and what Thelma and Louise experienced—even what the unnamed character in the Yellow Wallpaper experienced (although she didn’t technically die).
People can live a long time in a stifling environment, whether it be an abusive relationship, a totalitarian regime, a controlling community, or a hateful culture. The ability of the human spirit to adapt to such stressors and even rise above them is well-known and inspiring.
But I’m not here to talk about the endurance of the soul.
I’m here to talk about when the soul is no longer satisfied with merely existing.
For some, there comes a moment when they get a taste of hope and freedom, and they know they can never go back. That moment when they know that conformity doesn’t cut it, that treading water isn’t worth it, and that anything is better than what they have. That moment when the soul whispers, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”
It’s a brilliant moment and a beautiful one!
It’s the point of no return.
To the rest of the world Edna, Thelma, and Louise may look like horrible, senseless tragedies, but those women understood what it meant to value their identity, autonomy, and freedom more than anything else.
Once you have that kind of awakening, it’s irrevocable.
I can remember the moment that I realized I couldn’t stay in the IFB. I’d been suicidal for most of high school, but I always felt ashamed of my desire to die. Then one day I knew that if I couldn’t get out, I would kill myself—and I would do it with relish–because it was far worse to be trapped in that life.
It was my point of no return, and I still think suicide would have been a victory for me if there were no other options.
But this post isn’t just about death . . . or well, it kind of is, but not the kind that we think of. In Tarot, the Death card is a special card. It rarely signifies a physical death. Rather it serves as a symbol for a transition that is so complete that it feels like you are dying in the process.
From the Traditional Rider-Waite illustrations.
I think in our society’s fear of death, we’ve lost the ability to see it as a symbol. The point of no return is as much about the death of inhibition and the death of your old identity, relational ties, security, and place in society as it is about the willingness to die physically.
And that’s where I find Edna, Thelma, and Louise become symbols for an entirely different action—embracing the unknown. Hurdling off a cliff, surrendering to the vast, endless ocean—choosing to let go of everything you’ve known in order to pursue freedom and autonomy.
I was finishing Crewel around the same time that I was finishing The Awakening. Two books with vastly different plots and vastly different endings, but they felt like they were mirroring each other in a way that not even an English professor could orchestrate. The day after I cried my happy tears as Edna gave herself over to the pull of the tide, I was reading about Adelice ripping open the fabric of her society and contemplating her chances of escaping into the void beyond.
And I saw myself staring into the blackness of leaving my religion.
The point of no return is terrifying, but enlivening. You don’t know whether you’re going to be annihilated or break through to a new world, but in that moment of leaping, it doesn’t even matter.
Technically, we don’t know for sure whether Edna dies at the end of The Awakening. It’s implied that she cannot live, but the moment of death is never actually shown—because it’s the surrender that is the most important part, that moment when she decides she’s not going back. In Crewel however, we do see what happens after the point of no return. Adelice pitches herself over the edge, admitting that the fall could have potentially gone on forever, but nevertheless reaches out in faith, breaking through the unendurable illusion of her former life into an unknown, uncontrollable, but totally authentic world of her own choosing.
“What’s worth doing even if you fail?” Brene Brown asks in her new book Daring Greatly. I know that sacrificing my life for my freedom and autonomy was worth it . . . and that no matter how it ended, I couldn’t fail because I was claiming my freedom.
As Jesus once asked, “What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” In the IFB, I was taught that question was pointing to the waste of worldly possessions in relation to salvation. Now, however, I see it differently. What is the point of surviving–what is the point of safety–if your sense of self and freedom are the price? The point of no return isn’t about death; it’s about freedom being more important than survival.