Monsieur Ratignolle is at the drug store and is grateful that Edna will be there for his wife. Madame Ratignolle's sister could not make it, and the doctor has been in and out. When Edna arrives at the Ratignolle residence, she finds her friend in great pain, looking haggard and sick. Madame Ratignolle screams about being neglected by her husband and the doctor. When the doctor arrives, she refuses to let Edna leave her side. Edna begins to feel uneasy and remembers the pain and confusion she experienced when she was in labor. She wishes she had not come, but she cannot make herself leave. She stays through the entire ordeal as if she were torturing herself. When she says goodbye, Madame Ratignolle whispers to her, "Oh think of the children! Remember them!"
Madame Ratignolle's appearance in this chapter is a sharp departure from her usual complacent, Madonna-like self. In the throes of childbirth, she is unattractive, irritable, and inconsolable. Her hair is braided and looks like a golden serpent. This symbolic image evokes associations with Eve and the Garden of Eden. In her moment of anguish, Madame Ratignolle represents human folly, rather than maternal plenitude, and she is experiencing the effects of God's curse on womankind. Madame Ratignolle is bringing more children into an imperfect, sinful world, and there is nothing romantic or special about what she is doing.
Edna remembers her own birthings and the accompanying pain. She relives the entire ordeal and experiences it as torture. This passage exposes childbirth as the painful, gut-wrenching process that it is, and it reveals the cult of motherhood as simply a constructed fiction. There is nothing inherently good or natural about being a mother or in having maternal instincts. During childbirth, which is the time when a woman is most a mother, Madame Ratignolle is racked with pain and loses all the maternal qualities for which she is most admired. She becomes simply a woman, stripped of all her nurturing, giving characteristics, and she experiences the actual act of childbirth as a very unpleasant process. By presenting childbirth and maternity in such a light, Chopin is suggesting that it is foolish to define women solely as mothers and to glorify only those women who limit themselves as such.
Edna feels dazed after leaving Madame Ratignolle, and Doctor Mandelet offers to walk her home. He thinks that it is cruel that Madame Ratignolle made her stay with her, and Edna tries to convey her complex emotions. Though her words are jumbled, she acknowledges that she has responsibilities to her children that get in the way of independence and freedom from illusions. Doctor Mandelet understands what she's trying to say and tells her she can talk to him if she ever needs to. Edna declines his offer but says that even though she feels comfortable flouting convention and doing her own thing, she still feels guilty about possibly hurting her children.
When she enters her house, she is excited to remember that Robert will be waiting there. She remembers Madame Ratignolle's warning but decides to ignore it for that one night. However, much to her despair, she finds Robert gone and a brief note that says, "I love you. Good-bybecause I love you." She lies on the sofa awake for the entire night.
All the new feelings and emotions that have been building up inside of Edna suddenly come together in this second-to-last chapter. Finally, after blindly doing her own thing for so long, Edna realizes the full meaning of her awakeningonly to find herself up against a wall. After witnessing Madame Ratignolle's ordeal and hearing her warning, Edna understands that she cannot simply do whatever she wants without regard to consequence. No matter how hard she tries to disregard convention and the people around her, she cannot escape from her responsibility to her children. She is not acting in a vacuum, and she cannot simply abandon her children to fend for themselves in a difficult world. Even though she is willing to risk social ostracism for herself, she recognizes that she needs to protect her children, and in order to do so, she must compromise some of her ideals and desires.
Edna decides not to think about such concerns for this one night, however. She cannot ignore the fact that she and Robert are in love with each other, even if she is aware that such love could have a harmful effect on the lives of her children. Edna is not going to sacrifice the one true emotion she has had in her entire lifeher love for Robertespecially since he is at least partially responsible for her awakening. Over the summer he made her realize that she was a wonderful personnot just a good wife or motherand she cannot simply back out of the moment to which her entire existence for the past year has been building.
Robert does not wait for her because he is only too aware that their actions that night would have negative consequences. While Edna is willing to risk all, at least at that moment, Robert is not willing to let her do so. He has not had the same kind of awakening as she has, and as a man, he does not have to struggle against the social limitations that Edna finds so unbearable. He is not reacting against anything, and as such, he has a little more clairvoyance. Or else he's just a little more afraid.
Victor is at Grand Isle fixing up the cottages, and Mariequita is asking him to tell her about Mrs. Pontellier's party. She thinks that Victor is in love with Mrs. Pontellier and gets melodramatically jealous. Suddenly, Mrs. Pontellier appears at the cottage, and they are amazed to actually see her there. She says she just wanted to rest a little, and they talk about where she can stay and what they'll have for dinner. Edna says that she wants to go swimming for a little bit.
She walks down to the beach without thinking about anything. She has already done all her thinking on the night that she stayed up all night. That night she realized that she could have a string of lovers and that soon she'll even forget about Robert. However, her children are the one thing preventing her from forging her own path and that threaten to chain her to a life of misery.
She goes to the beach house and puts on her old bathing suit. Then she takes it off and stands naked on the beach, in front of the ocean, with its seductive, ceaseless voice. She starts to swim far out into the ocean and is not afraid. She thinks of the meadow in Kentucky that she played in when she was little, and she laughs at her husband and children, who can never possess her. She thinks of Mademoiselle Reisz, who she imagines as laughing at her lack of courage, and of Doctor Mandelet, who wouldn't really have understood her. She is growing tired, and her last thoughts are of her childhood: her father and her sister Margaret, an old dog, the cavalry officer she had a crush on, and the sounds and smells of her youth.
This last scene of suicide is written in a beautiful, subtle prose. Chopin's writing is balanced and calm, and it aptly capture Edna's mental state. For the first time in the novel, Edna has thought extensively about her course of action, and she knows exactly what she's going to do. To the end, Edna remains true to herself. In deciding to kill herself, she is refusing to sacrifice her illusions for anyone or anything, including her children. She sees death as her only path of escape, and to some extent, she may be right. In a world where she is limited to being a wife and a mother, she is trapped in an unfulfilling marriage and has children who she only sometimes enjoys. She has already been defined by her society, and she cannot redefine herself without jeopardizing the futures of her children.
In returning to Grand Isle, the novel comes full circle. The island was the scene of her original awakening, and after a year, she is once again returning to the ocean. The water, which had seduced her with its sound and helped awaken her sensuous nature, reclaims her in this chapter. She first realized her mental, physical, and emotional potential while discovering how to swim, so it is only natural that she destroy this potential by drowning herself.
However, the novel does not end on a pessimistic tone. Before she dives into the ocean, Edna stands naked in the sun and feels once again reborn. Edna destroys herself, but paradoxically, she is also reclaiming her life. She is asserting that her life is hers to have and to destroy, and she is refusing to sacrifice it on behalf of society.