*The Awakening*, written by Kate Chopin in the 1890’s and set around that same time, in the North American state of Louisiana, is a novel that tells the story of a Victorian woman’s quest for self-discovery and her pursuit of her desires, in defiance to the expectations and tradition of a society that fixed a limited domestic role for female human beings. In order to depict the protagonist’s state and development during her journey towards freedom and independence from society’s imposed duties and responsibilities, this literary work relies pretty much on symbolism, particularly bird imagery. On this basis, this essay aims to explore the implications of the various images of birds in the novel and analyse how the different species of birds mentioned – parrot, mockingbird, pigeon – symbolize different ideas.
The novel’s first uttered words are shrieked by a green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage and kept complaining in French: “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi!” which in English means: “Go away! Go away! For God’s sake!”. This constrained bird mirrors the novel’s protagonist, Mrs. Edna Pontellier, – as well as Victorian women’s predicament – in many respects. Not only is it caged, but it also lacks the possibility to think on its own what it is saying (as it was thought and expected of Victorian women) and instead repeats just what others say. Like Edna, it is valued by society superficially for its physical appearance, making it seem – and being treated like – an object; and though it has the potential to fly, as it has wings, it is limited and cannot use them in this case for escaping, since it is trapped. Additionally, it voices what Edna herself feels later: the need to be left alone and be independent. Most importantly, this confined parrot is said to speak “English, French and a little Spanish”, as well as a “language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird that hung on the other side of the door, whistling his fluty notes…” Indeed, throughout the novel Edna learns to speak different languages and express herself in ways that end up isolating her for they are incomprehensible to her society.
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If Edna symbolises the parrot, later in the novel we are introduced to the person that may be said to represent her mockingbird: Madmoiselle Reisz, the self-sufficient and unconventional piano player who inspires Edna’s artistic development and understands her newfound emotional language. Like the mockingbird, however, Madmoiselle is also implied to be confined by society, which, as it does with the parrot, appreciates her for her musical talent.
Significantly, Madmoiselle Reisz also uses bird imagery when warning Edna about the sacrifices of the artist and human being who looks for self-fulfillment. This is seen in chapter XXVII, when Edna herself says to Arobin the following:
” ‘When I left her [Madmoiselle] today, she 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.’
‘Whither would you soar?’
‘I’m not thinking of any extraordinary flights. I only half comprehend her.’ “
The idea expressed in Madmoiselle Reisz’s words and metaphor foreshadow Edna’s tragic end, when the latter acknowledges the profundity of her solitude and feels that there is no place for her in the world about her, and so decides to commit suicide. Similarly, Edna’s own claim that she is not thinking of any “extraordinary flights” and does not entirely understand what Madmoiselle meant also prefigures the fact that she may not be able to have the strength to withstand the consequences of her actions, if we consider her eventual suicide as representing her failure to overcome societal limitations, and not as a final act of rebellion to escape the grasp of any controlling power through death.
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It is also worthy of mention that Edna’s last house is called “the pigeon house”, after its resemblance to that used to keep domesticated pigeons, which does not presage a good fate for the protagonist. As well as this, it may be noted that a pigeon is a bird that, although it is able to fly, has short legs, which may stand for weak self-support. Besides, it is also one that people used to hunt for sport or food, implying that it is liable to damage and murder, and so is at the mercy of society’s control.
Finally, just before Edna enters the sea to give herself to it, in chapter XXXIX, we read the following:
“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.”
This description including an injured bird that descends into the water with a broken wing may represent Edna and her failure to overcome societal expectations and imposed duties on her. It also foreshadows the way Edna will shortly die. However, critics also say that, if Edna’s suicide is instead regarded as her triumph against society and its assigned submissive and confined role to women, then the bird may symbolize Victorian tradition that falls down.
In all, *The Awakening* has many instances of bird imagery that parallel the protagonist, Mrs. Edna Pontellier, and her situation throughout the novel. They also serve, in certain contexts, to remind the readers of the confined condition of Victorian women in general. As well as this, the different species of birds are used to represent different ideas, as has been exemplified; all of which makes this literary work a celebrated one.
This essay was written by Alejandra M. V. de Picciotto, who is a teacher of the English language and culture in Argentina and around the world. There is more about this author all around the Internet.
... her. Not coincidentally she names the house the? pigeon house. ? Edna felt that, ? The pigeon house pleased her. It at once assumed the ... boundaries and limitations in her role as a woman. Edna soon follows the bird into the depths of the ocean, ending her ... madness that was surrounding her. Thus, with consistent references to birds and flight, Kate Chopin? s trapped character meets her destiny ...