In all novels the use of symbols are what make the story feel so real to the reader. A symbol as simple as a bird can mean so much more then what you see. Whereas a symbol as complicated as the sea, can mean so much less then what you thought. It is a person perception that brings them to the true meaning of a specific symbol. Symbols are message within a word that must be analyzed to discover. In The Awakening, Kate Chopin conveys her ideas by using carefully crafted symbols that reflect her characters’ thoughts and futures. Early in the novel, while Edna attempts to escape from society’s strong grasp, birds emphasize her entanglement by forecasting her actions and monitor her development by reflecting her feelings. The novel opens with the image of a bird, trapped and unable to communicate: “a green and yellow parrot, which hung in the cage outside the door…could speak a little Spanish, and also a language that nobody understood” (1).
Like the bird, Edna feels trapped and believes that society has imprisoned her. Her marriage to Mr. Pontellier suffocates her and keeps her from being free. At the same time, she remains shut apart from society like the bird in the cage, and different ideas and feelings prevent her from communicating. The only person in society that begins to understand her, Robert, eventually decides that he must remain a member of society instead of staying with her. He says that “you [Edna] were not free; you were Leonce Pontellier’s wife” and that “[Robert] was demented, dreaming of wild, impossible things…[such as] men who had set their wives free” (108).
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Robert does not want to do something wild and unacceptable to society. In a situation parallel to that of Edna’s, the only bird that understands the parrot is the mockingbird (Reisz) that “[is] whistling its fluty notes upon the breeze with maddening persistence” (1).
Because the parrot continues to shriek, people move it away from their society: “[Mr. Farvial] insisted upon having the bird removed and consigned to regions of darkness” (23).
Society wants to hide the bird in darkness, as it wants to do to Edna, in order to keep the bird from causing problems. Later, when Mademoiselle Reisz tells Edna that “the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings,” she uses birds to forecast Edna’s future and evaluate Edna’s strength (83).
In order to soar like a bird, Edna must be strong, and Mademoiselle Reisz realizes that she is not. Mademoiselle Reisz says, “it is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth” (83).
This bird symbolizes Edna?s struggle to become the master of her own life as well as her failure to achieve this goal. Mademoiselle Reisz understands that Edna cannot fight society and uses birds to demonstrate this knowledge. The bird, like Edna, is the only one “who possessed sufficient candor” to tell the truth about society (23).
Finally, Edna moves to what she calls her exhausted “pigeon house.” The name that Edna chooses for this house implies the defeat of a bird that, in turn, implies the defeat of Edna. Throughout Edna’s life, birds reflect her actions and feelings. All through the book, sleep is an important and reoccurring subject. Edna often sleeps in order to recover from the stress of her “awakenings.” After her first solo swim she feels the “physical need for sleep [begin] to overtake her; the exuberance which had sustained and exalted her spirit left her helpless and yielding to the conditions which crowded her in” (34).
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She needs sleep to repair her disheveled emotions after her aesthetic and physical awakenings. Without sleep, Edna is physically and mentally unable to realize her ambitions. Another symbolic example of Edna sleeping occurs at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Cheniere Caminada. There, Edna is overcome by her emotions during service. She realizes that she is going against society?s rules. She is taken to “Madam Antoine?s [where Edna] can rest” (38).
This period of rest is vital to restore her power and self-confidence. This symbolizes the fairly tale aspect of her sleep. Chopin relates Edna to the Sleeping Beauty who has awoken to a new world with a new perception of her surroundings. She now feels as though she has a new look on life and a new purpose.Throughout the story the ocean represented Edna’s constant struggle for self-realization and independence. The sea speaks to Edna?s soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace (25).
In the novel, the ocean symbolizes Edna’s “awakening” to a life filled with freedom and independence. On a hot summer evening Robert and Edna go bathing. Although Edna does not wish to go and initially declines his offer, something inside is compelling her to go down to the water. It is there in the seductive ocean that Edna’s awakening begins. A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her? [she] 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 (25).
That warm ocean environment is in direct contrast to the responsibilities and rules of the cold, hard city. And it is there in that relaxed and forgiving atmosphere that Edna can explore her new found freedoms. While relaxing on the beach with Mrs. Ratignolle, the sight of the endless ocean brings back memories from Edna’s childhood. A strong connection to the ocean links her present experience to her childhood. This rebirth takes her back to a time of innocence and curiosity that allows her to explore life through new eyes. Edna is filled with swelling emotions and reveals “Sometimes I feel this summer as if I were walking through the green meadow again. Idly, aimlessly, unthinking, and unguided” (30).
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Edna’s recollection of this event allows her to more clearly recognize her internal turmoil. The link between Edna’s awakening and the ocean becomes even clearer when after several attempts she finally learns to swim. The first time she ventures out into the ocean alone is the first step toward her independence. She panics when she realizes how far she has gone alone and fears drowning. This incident represents Edna gaining control over her body and becoming more aware of her full potential. The ocean helps her recognize that her body is her own and she awakens to her physical, mental, and emotional capabilities. “But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with overconfidence.” (47).
Edna’s sudden terror in the middle of the ocean signifies that she may not be able to venture out as far as she wants to and may have to turn back. “She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before?A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses” (48).
The Sea is causing a mixture of pride, fear, and uncertainty inside of her. Robert leaving Edna, opens Edna’s eyes to the fact that she is still not entirely her own person. Mr. Pontellier and society still have control over many of Edna’s decisions and much of her life. When Edna decides to claim her life she is asserting that her life is hers to have and to destroy. She wants to prove to everyone including herself that she is her own person and can choose her own fate. It is now that the ocean plays the biggest part in Edna’s awakening. “The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude” (189).
Edna swims out into the depths of the ocean, naked, returning to the innocence of her childhood. ” She felt like some new-born creature” (189).
As Edna swims on to her freedom, “She did not look back?but went on and on, thinking of the bluegrass meadow?believing that it had no beginning and no end” (190).
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It is there in the ocean that she first realizes her physical, mental, and emotional potential. It is only natural that the water, which has seduced her with its sound reclaims her. Edna Pontellier has always abided by social expectations and lived for everyone but herself. In order for her to gain her independence and escape from her trapped state in society she must put all that she has ever known behind her. This last scene symbolizes Edna giving up her life for her freedom. She goes back to where she first got some independence(the sea) and breaks through the cage that held her prison and dies, living solely for herself. Though see lost her life she finally got out of the world see dreaded living in so much. Without symbols a story would be a group of words placed in a sequential, yet pointless order. There would be no such thing of reading for pleasure, for the fact our minds would feel useless without symbols.