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In Kate Chopin's The Awakening, the underlying meaning is imparted to the reader through the use of explicit symbolism. The major role of the use of symbolism in the novel is to attempt to draw a link between the world that Edna knows and her several awakenings and make that link more powerful and compelling. Analyzed in this essay are three prominent symbols of interest which are birds, the ocean and the houses Edna resides in. The avian allusions and symbols that are present throughout the story serve to represent the ability to fly and the freedom it enables. The references to oceans and seas within the novel are symbolic of freedom and empowerment as it relates to Edna. Further houses allow the reader to observe the different transformations that Edna undergoes. The Awakening, written by Kate Chopin, is filled with numerous symbols and motifs that allow the reader to develop a deeper understanding of its message.
The first symbol to be analyzed is the recurring sign of birds present throughout the novel. When birds appear in the novel they serve as a reflection of Edna's self, and her thoughts. The novel opens not with a main character speaking but with parrot, "Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi!" (pp. 3). This declaration from the bird translates to "Go away! Go away! For heaven's sake!" It can be inferred that these lines are representative of the thoughts that are passing through Edna's mind for much of the novel. Much like the parrot which "could speak a little Spanish, and also a language which nobody understood," (pp. 3) Edna is unable to communicate her true desires and her true feelings to anyone else because they could not understand. Edna wishes to abandon her role as a compliant wife, and acquiescent mother that the Creole society demands she be. Further the bird discussed above is caged symbolizing the entrapment of Edna by society and its expectations for females of that era. Perhaps the only other character in the novel that understands Edna is Mademoiselle Reisz, who stirs Edna's soul with music, and gives advice to her. Edna informs Arobin that Mademoiselle Reisz:
Put her arms around me and 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.' (pp. 103)
It appears that Reisz knows beforehand that Edna will attempt to fly and expresses an uncertainty as to whether or not Edna is strong enough to succeed. Mademoiselle Reisz is warning Edna in this passage that her flight may ultimately end in failure but Edna does not receive this message for she is "not thinking of any extraordinary flights. I only half comprehend her." Reisz is attempting to help her with this flight by inferring that she is perhaps not strong enough, and may fail but it falls on deaf ears as Edna does not comprehend what Reisz is trying to do. The reader encounters birds towards the conclusion of the novel during a pivotal moment in Edna's life, "All along the white beach, up and down, there was no living thing in sight. A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water." (pp. 113) Edna observes this as she is about to walk into the ocean and go through her final awakening. This bird with a broken wing embodies Edna representing that she, much like the bird, is unable to fly away and escape from the things that confine her. Further it also illustrates that Edna is already dead before she enters the water like the bird that is doomed to death.
The second symbol to be analyzed is the frequent appearance of the ocean/sea. Of all the symbols in the novel, the ocean appears most regularly. Edna consistently connects the ocean with a certain personal free will even when she is a child, "[a meadow] seemed as big as the oceanâ€¦she threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked." (pp. 21) Clearly Edna feels freedom and excitement in the above passage illustrated through the reference to the wide open ocean. Further, it is in the ocean located off from the Grand Isle where we observe on of Edna's awakenings. Before this awakening she has already learned how to swim, and when she attempts to swim out into the ocean for the first time a certain metamorphosis occurs, "A feeling of exultation overtook her...She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman has swum before." (pp. 37) This scene is critically important in the progression of the novel because with her discovery of her ability to swim she also realizes that her life is an empty shell. Perhaps this realization serves to assist her in the changes that she will encounter later in the novel. But there is an aspect of foreshadowment in the line "she grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength." Though swimming in the ocean gives her many positive feelings of freedom she has not the strength to swim for longer periods of time and as a result will drown. Her desire to "swim far out, where no woman has swum before" is a noble desire to escape from her entrapment due to Creole society, and she somewhat accomplishes this wish but ultimately fails with her demise. The ocean in the novel allows Edna some of the feelings of freedom, but it also serves as an instrument of her demise; "Exhaustion was pressing upon and over possessing her. Good-bye, because I love you â€¦ He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand â€¦ it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone." (pp. 116) Edna believes that the ocean allows her to express herself and escape from the power that is exenterated over her by society. But she realizes that no matter what she attempts to do she will always be trapped by society, for she lacks the ability to change the way her life is. After coming to this realization she decides that she will retire where she feels the most free and away from being influenced; into the ocean.
The third and final symbol to be analyzed in this paper is the dynamic symbolism of the houses that Edna resides in. These houses are a direct reflection of the numerous mental and emotional states that Edna experiences throughout her journey. The cottages that are located on the Grand Isle have several symbolic meanings. They serve as separate cages for Edna and also are a reflection of the families that reside within them. Further, all of the cottages at places like this are nearly identical suggesting that all families that dwell in them are identical according to the traditions of the Creole society. Perhaps the most iconic and important house that is encountered during the novel is Edna's "pigeon-house." The imagery relating to this house instantly gives the reader insight into why this house is so important to Edna, "In a little four-room house around the corner. It looks so cozy, so inviting and restful." (pp. 79) This pigeon house serves to provide Edna with the comfort and independence that her old house with her husband never provided. Her freedom she experiences allows her to realize how much control she can have over her life, "she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself." (pp. 80) This can be considered one of her many awakenings for she realizes that she does not need a man in order to fulfill and complete her life. It is also important to note the contrast from her previous feelings to the new feelings and abilities that arise after Edna moves into the pigeon house; before when she kisses Arobin in the house of her husband she has feelings of "reproach looking at her from the external things around her which he had provided for her external existence." (pp. 84) Yet when she engages with Arobin at her new "pigeon-house" she experiences no feelings of reproach or regret. This illustrates how she is now more free in this house than she has been in any other setting.
There are many symbols in the novel The Awakening, and in this essay three of the most prominent have been examined leading us to a huge conclusion. Clearly it is necessary in this novel, and most others to analyze and apply the occurrences and meanings behind symbols scattered throughout the work. Birds serve as an allusion to Edna herself and as an instrument of foreshadowment in regards to her own demise. The ocean is used numerous times throughout the novel as a source of freedom and self expression that allow Edna a release from everything going on in her life. The last symbol was the many houses that Edna was in during the novel that were representative of her current feelings and were a reflection of her. Without the analysis and acknowledgment of these symbols the story becomes just a simple piece of writing and lacks significant deeper meanings.