The Awakening, a novel by Kate Chopin, describes the life of a woman struggling to escape from the society to which she feels bound. Edna, the main character, is on a pursuit to find independence from the mother-woman lifestyle to which she has come to despise. Living in a traditional Creole society in the late 1800s, Edna finds herself yearning for a different, less conforming lifestyle. In telling the story of Edna’s transformation, Chopin uses symbolism to explain and foreshadow the story as well as enhance the reader’s understanding. Kate Chopin uses birds, the sea, and music as a way to symbolize Edna’s journey throughout the novel in which she transforms from typical Creole housewife to an independent woman.
Chopin uses various bird symbols in writing The Awakening . The novel opens with a caged parrot repeating, “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! It’s all right,” meaning “Go! Go! Good heavens! It’s all right! (p. 1)”. This begins Chopin’s numerous uses of symbolism using birds. The caged parrot, a seemingly unimportant character, foreshadows the entire plot of the novel. The bird tells Edna that it is okay to go, as in to leave the society to which she is bound, and Edna eventually follows this advice. Chopin also states that the parrot speaks a “language that nobody understood (p. 1)”. Like the parrot, Edna’s ideas and reasoning are not understood by her community, nor does she completely understand them herself. Directly after the parrot screeches, Chopin describes a mockingbird “that hung on the other side of the door, whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze with maddening persistence (p. 1)”. The mockingbird, content with simply whistling through the day, symbolizes the average woman in Creole society, with a completely different idea of life than that of the parrot. The parrot screams to be released, while the mockingbird simply copies the ideas of others, just as the Creole women conform to the accepted mother-woman lifestyle of their society.
Much later in the novel, Edna escapes the life she has come to hate by moving out of her family’s house and into a small apartment. Edna refers to her apartment, which she rents with her own money, as the “pigeon-house (p. 114)”, a small, simple home in which she can live freely. Like pigeons, having her own home allows for Edna to roam freely and return when she pleases. This pigeon-house marks a turning point in Edna’s life in which she begins to come closer to her goal of happiness and independence. Prior to Edna’s departure from her family’s home, Mademoiselle Reisz tells her that “the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth (p. 112)”. In other words, she advises Edna that she must be strong in order to make the journey to her new life so she does not fail. Edna is the bird, yearning to break free and fly away from the norm. She must have strength, however, because her ideas are not acceptable by society’s standards.
Chopin also uses the symbolism of the sea throughout the novel to communicate the idea of freedom. At the beginning of the novel, while Edna is still on vacation at Grand Isle with her family she swims in the ocean for the first time by herself. Previously, she had only waded in the water with friends, specifically her love interest Robert. She comes to a sudden realization, however, and decides to swim alone. The sea seems to call to her and Chopin writes, “the voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude…the voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace (p. 18)”. The ocean allows her to escape and relax on her own and serves and a calm and peaceful place away from the judgment of others and in which she finds strength. Because Edna first begins going into the water more frequently with Robert, Robert is clearly a stepping stone for Edna moving away from conforming society and into the soothing sea of freedom. She responds to this feeling of breaking away by pushing herself to swim alone, a test of her strength and a step towards accomplishing her goal of finding complete independence.
Chopin again uses symbolism of the sea at the end of the novel when Edna commits suicide. Edna has come to terms with the fact that her and Robert cannot be together, and if they cannot be together then Edna will never find happiness. She realizes that the only way to find true independence is to end her life completely: to break her bond to this society forever. Edna drowns herself in the sea, her place of freedom and sovereignty. Rather than creating an unhappy ending, Edna’s suicide instead marks a happy resolution in the plot. Edna has found independence by ending her life in a place where she feels in the control, the ocean. The ocean comforts Edna as she loses the strength she once had when fighting for Robert and a different life. She willingly lets go, however, because this is her only way of totally escaping from societal constraints and experiencing true independence.
Throughout the novel, Chopin uses music as a symbol of the society in which Edna lives. Edna listens to the music of both Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz. Both women play the piano, however, their music has completely different effects on Edna. Madame Ratignolle’s music is mundane and typical, gaining society’s approval. Edna has no reaction to her music, is it simply enjoyable. Mademoiselle Reisz, however, brings Edna to tears after playing because her music reveals her passion for the music. Chopin writes, “The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column…the very passions themselves were aroused in her soul (p. 35)”. Reisz is not as accepted in society; however, she plays with true emotion and, therefore, arouses Edna’s emotions while playing. She uses music as a method of self-expression. Madame Ratignolle is comparable to the typical Creole woman who plays the piano simply to entertain, while Mademoiselle Reisz represents a more fearless, unique woman, such that Edna longs to be.
Kate Chopin uses the symbolism of birds, the sea, and music in her novel The Awakening in order to better explain Edna’s journey from silent sadness in captivity to finding freedom on her own. These symbols allow the reader to better connect and understand Edna on a deeper level. The Awakening gains value when all of the symbolism is brought to the surface and Chopin reveals her true motifs.