Kate Chopin underscores the expression “free as a bird” in the novel The Awakening through the consistent use of aviary symbolism. Throughout the story she cleverly weaves images and descriptions of birds to express the psychological state of mind of her main character, Edna Pontellier.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this symbolism is in the first spoken sentences of the novel, which, strangely enough, are not uttered by a human, but rather screeched by a parrot. “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! Thats all right!” (1) are the words hollered by this maddened, caged bird. When translated into English, they are, “Go away! Go away! For heavens sake!” These expressions aptly represent the forbidden thoughts racing through the mind of Edna Pontellier, the novels heroine. She wants to go away, for she is bored with her mundane life. Tired of dealing with her insensitive husband and her ordinary children, she longs for something more exciting. Ironically, Edna probably should have taken the parrots advice and escaped from her hellish world immediately. Yet, she did not, and because of this, she was forced to meet her tragic end. Plus, in addition to the words of warning, the image of this hostile, shrieking bird is a symbol in and of itself. For like the parrot, Edna is also trapped, not within a metal cage, but by the standards and traditions of society.
The next demonstration of the avian image comes in the form of a young man named Alcee Arobin, a man whose surname syllabicated slowly is pronounced “a – robin”. This bird, the harbinger of spring, is able to fly freely. Arobin matches this description, for he, like his counterpart, flies freely through society. Admittedly, with”… ingenuous frankness he spoke of what a wicked, undisciplined boy he had been. .” (76) and to Edna he, “talked in a way that astonished her at first and brought crimson to her face.” (78) Later on, he has no qualms or remorse when he has an affair with Edna, a married woman. Alcee Arobin is a vicious playboy who soars through society with no morals or constrictions, simply doing what he wants when he wants. Edna greatly admires these qualities and longs to have them so that she too will be able to glide through life without barriers before her or chains holding her back.
“The bird that would soar above the level of plain tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.” (83) This is the advice, given to Edna by the mysterious Mademoiselle Reisz, that also fails into the pattern of avian imagery to represent a deeper meaning for the novels heroine. Though Edna does not comprehend the message behind Mademoiselle Reiszs warning, the reader realizes that if Edna is determined to break through the stereotype of the submissive, passive housewife, and to”fly free” in society, she must have strength in order to succeed. These lines are echoed later at the tragic conclusion. Prior to Ednas suicide, she notices that, “a bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, fluttering,circling disabled down, down to the water.” (115) The unfortunate wounded bird, injured and weak, plunging into the water, symbolizes her failure to escape the boundaries and limitations in her role as a woman. Thus, Edna quickly follows the bird to her death.
Thus, with consistent references to birds and flight, Kate Chopins trapped creature meets an untimely death, unable to heed the advice of the parrot, not ready to follow the loveless, amoral path of Arobin, and only half-comprehending the words of Mademoiselle Reisz. However, Edna now is freed from the barriers and obstacles in her life, which prevented her from attaining her dream. As she waded into the cold ocean water at the novels end, Edna Pontellier was “flying free” to her death