Kate Chopin is widely regarded as one of the best feminist and local color writers in America, although her best work, The Awakening, was relatively unknown for almost a century after it was written. The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier, who, after a vacation with her family, liberates herself. In the end, she discovers that the society in which she lives will never allow her freedom. The Awakening is rife with symbols that often remain unclear until after the book is finished; once they are recognized, however, the story becomes much more powerful.
The ocean is one of the most obvious symbols in the story. It is in the ocean off of Grand Isle where Edna has her awakening. She has spent a good deal of time learning to swim, and when she finally swims on her own, changes take place within her. “A feeling of exultation overtook her… She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before” (p. 37). This scene is pivotal: Edna learning to swim shows her the things she is missing in her own life, and provides an impetus for the coming changes. She “wanted to swim… where no woman had swum before” and yet, it is crucial to note that she became “reckless, overestimating her own strength.”
While away from the ocean, houses become another important symbol. The Lebrun estate on Grand Isle was previously a vacation home only for the Lebrun family. On the death of Monsieur Lebrun, however, his wife was forced to rent out cottages to other upper-class families during the summer in order to maintain it. Thus the Lebrun house is fallen in this sense, so steeped within the constraints of society that it cannot survive without them. The cottages in which vacationers stay are symbolic in more than one way: they become cages for Edna, and they are representative of the families which stay in them. Edna dislikes being in the cottages, spending as much time as she possibly can on the porches and at the ocean while on Grand Isle. In addition, the cottages are all identical, which is a symbol of the natures of the families there at the beginning of the novel. Each family fills the stereotypes of an upper-class family of the day.
Leonce Pontellier’s house in New Orleans is one of the most prominent symbols involving a house. “Mr. Pontellier was very fond of walking about his house. He greatly valued his possessions, chiefly because they were his” (p.67). This attitude of Leonce’s is very telling of the atmosphere surrounding the house on Esplanade Street: it was his, as was everything in it, including his wife. The fact that Leonce felt he owned Edna provides her with another reason to escape her situation. After she moves to her own home following her awakening, she insists on living in a place filled with possessions entirely hers. While there, she tells Robert Lebrun at their final meeting that “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions…. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both” (p.145).
Edna also speaks “a language which nobody understood” throughout the novel, trying ineffectually to show others the freedom which she is trying to attain. No one hears her, not even “the mocking-bird that hung on the other side of the door, whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze with maddening persistence” (p. 1). This mocking-bird is a symbol for Adele Ratignolle, a friend of Edna’s and the perfect example of the stereotypical woman. The mother-women on Grand Isle are also represented as birds, “fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood” (p. 10). Edna differs from these mother-women in that she does not give her life for her children, an action which sets her apart.
Later in the novel, flight becomes a symbol of freedom of Edna, who tells of Mademoiselle Reisz: “she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong 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. 111). Mademoiselle Reisz guides Edna through her awakening, but cannot help Edna forever.
The final symbol involving birds occurs at Grand Isle, when Edna returns to the scene of her awakening in order to die. “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” (p. 154). The image of the bird with its broken wing comes after the description of the beach, upon which “there was no living thing” This is significant in that it shows clearly that both Edna and the bird are truly dead before they are even in the water.
The Awakening has many other symbols to offer aside from these three. Clothes are an issue which is subtly reinforced throughout the book. At the beginning, Edna takes great pains to wear large amount of clothing, slowly shedding them throughout her awakening process. When she returns to Grand Isle, “for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air” (p.154). Meals are also important, particularly Edna’s symbolic Last Supper,’ an event she holds her final evening in Leonce’s house. She is seen as “the regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone” (p. 119). The moon and moonlight become important symbols of romance and desire, as Edna on the night of her awakening experiences “the first-felt throbbings of desire.she watched his figure pass in and out of the strips of moonlight as he walked away” (p. 40). In order to fully appreciate the delicate, fascinating symbols throughout The Awakening, this powerful piece must be read, and it is certainly worth reading more than once.