Kate Chopin uses powerful and significant symbolism in The Awakening to depict the feminist ideas involving women's longing for sexual and personal emancipation through the development of the main character, Edna Pontellier, as she recognizes the extent of her passion and ultimately the disappointment after the realization of her inevitable limitations in life. Symbolism is used to tell the story of Edna's journey toward self-discovery and the pursuit of her desires and freedom while defying Victorian society's expectations and her limited domestic female role of wife and mother. Some of these symbols include art, music, and houses. These images are also used to portray the different women of the Victorian era. Birds and water appear to be the most significant symbols that represent the development of Edna's character in The Awakening as she begins to stray from her assigned duties as wife, mother, and the conventions of Victorian society. Even the women characters in the story serve as symbols to identify the different models of Victorian women from "outcast" to the ideal "mother-woman". Chopin uses symbolism in The Awakening to explore the interdependence of female sexuality and gender roles to challenge cultural assumptions of the women of the late-nineteenth century.
Chopins' The Awakening is a story of the emotional journey of the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, who is a young Kentuckian woman of twenty-eight married to Leonce Pontellier, a successful New Orleans businessman, with two young sons during the Victorian era of 1899. The couple vacation on Grande Isle, a popular resort of French Quarter families on the Gulf Coast. While on vacation, Edna begins to make discoveries about herself and the world around her and initiate her awakening. She lusts after a young man on the island, Robert Lebrun, who flees to business in Mexico and denies Edna in the end. She returns to New Orleans with her husband with a broken heart after their vacation and continues to feel her repressed passion, which leads her to having an adulterous affair with Alcee Arobin. In her process toward self-discovery Edna's dissatisfaction with her role as a wife and mother lead her to rebel against the Victorian societal expectations by leaving her husband's home and ultimately swimming to her own death in the sea. These personal struggles are emphasized with Chopin's use of symbolism and imagery.
Chopin uses third person point of view, omniscient narrator to report the feelings and actions of Edna Pontellier. The narrator is anonymous but many critics believe that the narrator seems to align with Chopin's own convictions especially since Chopin "began to write in the years in which she was trying to come to terms with her individuality, making her acquaintance with the 'wholly convincing' self that was no longer defined by her husband (Boren, 160)". Chopin clearly demonstrates her own support of the character rebelling against the conventions of Victorian society. Although the narrator is mainly objective, it also appears at times that the narrator has sympathy for Edna and support for her female struggle. This is especially evident in chapter six of the narrative, when Chopin is describing the "beginning of things" that represent Edna's first steps toward self-discovery by stating that "a certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her, --the light which, showing the way, forbids it (Perkins, 550)". Chopin continues by stating that, "In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her (Perkins, 550)". This theme of self-awakening is more powerfully illustrated by Chopin with the use of symbols and images rather than direct character dialogue or narration.
For example, art and music in The Awakening symbolize an awakening in Edna as she recognizes the difference in each character's use and understanding of music. Music is used to portray women's role by illustrating the traditional expectation of women contrasted with the unconventional through the music performances of two different women. Both characters Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz play the piano for completely different reasons and in different ways. While Adele plays to entertain only her family and party guests she is praised and viewed as the model Victorian woman because she conforms to the domestic Victorian ideals. Reisz plays music as a form of expression and art. She is only acknowledged as a musician by Robert and Edna. Reisz's music awakens a new passion in Edna and a realization of music's emotive power. Reisz is shunned and discouraged for not conforming to the societal rules with her provocative music, and Adele is admired by society for her dutiful act of entertainer as wife and mother. Art represents freedom and self-assertion as well as failure for Edna. Edna is inspired by Mademoiselle Reisz and seems to be reaching her awakening of self-expression through painting while trying to become an artist, but in the end she is too weak and fails to reach the self-fulfillment that she is seeking through art.
Birds are major symbolic images throughout the narrative along with the idea of spreading your wings to fly. These birds are used to portray various emotions and situations involving freedom, failure and choices that Edna must make in her journey towards self-discovery. Edna begins as a beautiful caged parrot and the image eventually transforms into a disabled bird that flies freely. The novel begins with a scene including Madame Lebrun's caged and hostile parrot that is shrieking at Edna's annoyed husband, Leonce, and a singing mockingbird. This parrot represents Edna Pontellier and the entrapment of Victorian women in general and the desire to fly to freedom, while the mockingbird represents Mademoiselle Reisz. Women of the Victorian era were valued in the same fashion as this parrot. They were valued for their beauty and imprisoned not by the bars of a birdcage but by the societal roles, limited to wife and mother, placed on them. The mockingbird appears to have the ability of being the only one to understand the parrot's language just as Mademoiselle Reisz was the only one who understood Edna. Another reference to bird imagery is depicted in the conversation between Mademoiselle Reisz and Edna when Mademoiselle Reisz tells Edna that she must act as a bird by being strong to defy society's expectations and roles. As she "felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. '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" (Perkins, 602). The final awakening scene in the novel involves the last bird imagery where "a bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water (Perkins, 627)". Like the bird, Edna has escaped her cage and is not strong enough to survive. Death is the only freedom for Edna.
There are several houses in the novel including the one on Grand Isle, her home in New Orleans, the pigeon house, and the house in Cheniere Caminada. The two houses on Grand Isle and New Orleans that she shares with Leonce symbolize cages for Edna because she must perform her social duties of "mother-woman" and social hostess in both. But the other homes represent freedom for Edna where she escapes to sleep and dream on Cheniere Caminada and the pigeon house symbolizes her freedom away from her husband although the imagery of the pigeon house leads you to believe that it, in fact, is not actually a home of freedom because it is still a bird cage.
Water is the most significant symbol in The Awakening whether it is the ocean, gulf, or sea. The ocean represents freedom and escape. The water also is symbolic of rebirth. Chopin writes that "the voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude, lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation (Perkins, 550)". The gulf is the setting for Edna's midnight swim in which, according to Ann Heilmann, she "establishes her sense of self-ownership, physical, mental and spiritual, which in turn triggers two fundamental insights that determine her progression from disengaged wife to autonomous subject: in control of her body, she becomes aware of its potential for pleasure and learns to claim her right to self determination (Beer, 87)". Edna's final moments of life are spent in the ocean and the same line is repeated by Chopin: "The voice of the ocean is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude (Perkins, 627)". The ocean represents solitude, freedom, and independence in the end for Edna as she can no longer survive as merely a wife and mother in the Victorian society (Boren, 126-131). Death represents the only aspect of her life that she can take complete control over. The ocean is Edna's final escape from society.
Symbolism also comes in the form of Edna's two female friends, Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz. The selfless Adele represents the ideal Victorian woman by serving her husband to the fullest, adoring her children, and being the consummate "mother-woman". She urges Edna to conform to society and to think of the children. Adele as the nurturing, maternal figure filled with domestic contentment serves as a foil to Edna's rebelliousness in domestic and social affairs. Madmoiselle Reisz is the direct opposite of Adele. Reisz represents the strong, independent, artist who has who disregards the opinions and norms of society. As Barbara H. Solomon observes, "Edna cannot emulate the example of either of her friends. Their uncomplicated identities are well suited to each of them but insufficient for Edna (Koloski, 119)".
Although Edna dies in the end of the narrative, as Barbara C. Ewell explains, "the story of her struggle is perhaps the nineteenth century's most vivid and sustained rendering of what it means for a woman to try to achieve the selfhood that Emerson described as the most sacred task of the human being (Boren, 160)". Edna chooses death over a life she cannot fully live; therefore, Edna's final awakening is through her own independent choice of suicide (Palmisano, 159). Edna's transformation from submissive and passionless wife to rebellious, passionate artist is portrayed through Chopin's many symbols in The Awakening and her willingness to go against powerful social conventions makes Edna Pontellier's tale of a woman's journey to know herself a powerful and emotional awakening for all women.