Symbolism in “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin

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Kate Chopin, author of The Awakening, and quite a number of short stories, was born on the eighth of February, 1850 in St. Louise, Missouri. The reason some of her stories and novels contain some of the French language is because due to her mother’s side of the family being French, Chopin grew up speaking French and English. Throughout her childhood, Chopin had a rough life. First, her father died in a rail road accident in 1855. Then, her great grandmother passed away in 1863.

Next, Kate’s brother enlisted in the Confederate army. He was captured by the Union and later died of a typhoid fever. It should also be mentioned that Chopin and her family lived in St. Louis during the American Civil War. Her family owned slaves and supported both sides of the war (the Union and the Confederacy). Growing up, Kate was very close with the women in her life. She was mentored and taught by her sisters, her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. The nurturing that these women gave Chopin often shows in her novels and stories.

For example, it does show in The Awakening; Edna Pontellier is very nurturing towards her children. Her love and concern for her children is a part of what makes her feel trapped. In her early adult years, Chopin had a great love and passion for music, which is also another thing that often shows itself in her novels. In The Awakening, music plays a big role, as it is how Edna connects with one of the other main characters, Mademoiselle Reisz. Mademoiselle Reisz is an amazing piano player; she is childless and unmarried, and a good example of the free woman Edna wishes she could be.

Kate Chopin was married to Oscar Chopin in 1870. The couple toured France, Germany, and Switzerland, then settled down in New Orleans. New Orleans offered many things to Mrs. Chopin, such as horse racing, fine theater, an Opera House, and Mardi Gras. These, along with many surroundings, were all influential in Kate’s later writing. In 1882, Oscar Chopin passed away due to malaria. This left Kate a widow to raise six children on her own. The effects this had on her played a significant role in Chopin’s stories and novels, such as feeling trapped in The Awakening.

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, is a novel that is full of symbolism. The three most important symbolic items in the novel are caged and uncaged birds, houses, and the ocean. The very first thing that happens in The Awakening is Leonce Pontellier (Edna’s husband) is annoyed while trying to read his paper because Madame Lebrun’s parrot will not stop talking. What should be noted is that this is a caged bird. This caged bird is symbolic because it shows that Edna feels trapped in the life she is living. Another thing this caged bird is symbolic of is that Edna, and women in general during this time, had limited rights. They could not just go and do whatever they wanted because it was against societal norms.

“The novel’s ‘winged’ women may only use their wings to protect and shield, never to fly,” (Symbols, Spark Notes). In other words, women during this time were expected to raise and protect and take care of their own children and that was it. There sole purpose was to make their husbands happy and to raise children. Other than that, women had no rights to themselves. It is in this way that Edna is different than the rest of the women in the novel. At the end of the novel, while Edna is looking out into the ocean, there is a bird flying over the water. This is symbolic of freedom because the bird is no longer trapped in a cage. According to critic Jenni Enden, “birds in Chopin’s work symbolize… freedom and the aspiration for it…” (Enden, 3).

Edna is also freed like the bird at the end of the novel because this is when she submerges herself into the “abysses of solitude,” (Chopin, chapter 6). Edna truly did, “… resolve never again to belong to another than herself,” (Chopin, chapter 26). It should also be noted, however, that the free bird at the end of the novel is wounded. This is significant because it show that while Edna is now freeing herself, she is doing so because she herself is hurt and possibly mentally damaged. Some critics believe Edna’s awakening is more of a consumption in that instead of awakening and standing up to men and what she wants for herself, she lets the ocean take her life instead. Even more than that, there are also critics who say that this is a “symbolic return to the womb, allowing the ocean to possess her,” (Bird, Knox College Common Room).

The many houses Edna lives in, or stays in, throughout the novel are symbolic of her awakening. At the beginning, Edna is staying in a house on Grand Isle. While staying in this house, Edna for the most part does what is expected of her; the same goes for while she is staying in her own house in New Orleans. She is a housewife that takes care of the children and obeys her husband. After Edna meets Robert, the two sneak off together and she ends up staying at Madame Antoine’s house. When Edna does this, she is taking a big risk because she does not return to her own home to keep up with her own duties. At this point, Edna begins to do what she wants to make herself happy.

Staying at this house plays a big role in Edna’s awakening. While she is at this house with Robert, she is happy. “This home is restful, peaceful, and, importantly, it’s away from the oppressive society Edna hopes to escape,”(Houses and Homes, study.com). The last house Edna lives in is what she calls her “Pigeon House.” While the house is small, it is all she needs because she is the only one living in the house. At this point, Edna is mostly flourishing in her independence. After a long awaited interaction with Robert, Edna realizes that even living in her own house alone, she will never truly be happy. She realizes this when she leaves Robert alone in her small Pigeon House to help Madame Adele Ratignolle give birth. When she returns to the pigeon house after the birth, she finds that the house is empty with a letter waiting for her that reads, “Goodbye- because I love you,” (Chopin, chapter 38).

Edna knows she loves Robert back, but will never be able to have him. This is what pushes her to her complete awakening and realization that she truly never will be able to be happy because she will always belong to Leonce. Her belonging to him is after all why she will never be able to be with Robert. Finally, the ocean is symbolic of the freedom Edna longs to have, and throughout the novel she gets to feel this freedom in little bursts until the end of the novel when she is submerged in this freedom forevermore.

According to Edna, “The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.” (Chopin, chapter 6). This might seem like the opposite of a good thing, but throughout the novel it is revealed that this is exactly what Edna wants; she wants to be alone. The most obvious sign that the ocean is representative of freedom is that the ocean is one big, vast, and seemingly endless body of water. This is quite the opposite of being trapped in a cage. Being trapped in a cage, there is little room to stretch and move around.

In the ocean, which covers about seventy percent of the earth, there is more than enough space to go wherever the heart desires. The ocean is also symbolic of escape. At the very end of the novel, it is how she decides to escape all the societal pressures of her life; Edna wanders into the “abysses of solitude.” (Chopin, chapter 6). Anytime Edna is in the ocean (with the exception of the first time when she didn’t know how to swim), she feels happy and free. There is also the obvious sign that the ocean is representative of freedom: the ocean is one big, vast, and seemingly endless body of water. This is quite the opposite of being trapped in a cage. Being trapped in a cage, there is little room to stretch and move about. In the ocean, where thousands of the world’s biggest animals live, there is more than enough space to go wherever the heart desires.

The ocean is how Edna escapes her entrapment. At the end of the novel, Edna kills herself by drowning herself in the ocean so that she no longer needs to live in the depressing cages the world and society force her into. According to critics, this also makes Edna a feminist. “… Edna Pontellier’s awakening is one of mental clarity, and her suicide is a triumphant act. By committing suicide Edna is finally freeing herself from social constraints and possessions,” (Bird, Knox College Common Room).

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is absolutely full of symbolism. Caged birds are symbolic of Edna feeling trapped while uncaged birds are symbolic of Edna awakening. The houses throughout the novel are also symbolic of Edna’s awakening. Finally, the ocean is symbolic of the freedom that Edna longs to have and eventually submits herself to for eternity.

Cite this paper

Symbolism in “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin. (2021, Oct 31). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/symbolism-in-the-awakening-by-kate-chopin/

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