Kate Chopins novel The Awakening is full of symbolism. In each chapter there is a central symbol that adds to the meaning of the story. Small symbols throughout the novel such as sunshades, children playing and pianos represent properties of domesticity and society rules which Edna tries to separate herself from. Chopin does however, give larger representative symbols to add meaning to the novel. The first line of the novel is perhaps the most obvious example of symbolism.
A parrot screeches Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Saprtisti! Thats all right! which translates to Go Away! Go Away! For Heavens sake! This crazy bird in a cage represents Ednas longing to go away and escape from the pressures of society. In chapter 27, Mme Reisz says to Edna The bird would soar above the level of the plain tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth. (533) Edna did not understand this message but the reader knows it means. It means that if Edna is determined to break free of societal rules than she must have the strength to fly. In fact this is a foreshadowing of her failure.
In the last chapter Edna notices a bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water. (558) She went down in the water, naked, to die. The nakedness is a very important symbol in this novel. Clothing or lack there of, is a symbol. In the beginning, Edna is projected to be a domesticated, societal woman. She is well dressed with a sunshade, speaking to a young man. She begins this novel appropriately and fully dressed. Slowly, as the story continues, Edna sheds her clothes. This shedding represents the casting off of societal rules in her life.
Finally, at the end of the novel she has shed everything in her quest to find herself. She dies naked and free of society. It is not only Edna that is represented by clothes. Adele, in chapter seven, more careful of her complexion, had twined a gauze veil about her head. (478) Throughout the novel, Adele is the perfect mother woman, always careful of society and family. Adele and Mme. Leburn are constantly making clothes to cover their bodies. Mlle. Reisz and the lady in black never change, representing a distance from society. The houses are symbols of the places for society.
Grand Isle, where the novel begins, is a societal place to Edna. This is where the mother-woman goes. It is like a cage to Edna, full of rules. The house in New Orleans is the same, full of motherhood and necessity to be the perfect societal hostess. Her home in Kentucky is mentioned a few times but it is just like the home in New Orleans, full of society and bad memories. The houses that symbolize a sense of freedom are the pigeon house and Mme Antoines cottage. The pigeon house is a place where she can create her own world to escape from societal pressures.
The cottage is a place of freedom and sleepy dreaming. It is foreign, strange and yet relaxing because it is not normal. Here she finds peace and is able to get a resting sleep. Sleep is a large symbol throughout the novel. After Ednas awakenings she sleeps peacefully for long periods of time. It symbolizes her escape from reality and the repair of emotions. Her sleep patterns vary with her emotions. A few nights she does not sleep, leaving her to rest during the day. This is against peoples natural sleep rhythms and reflects her unnatural emotional pattern.
Her awakenings come at different times throughout the story. At the height of her awakening is art. Edna sees art as a way of self-expression and self-assertion. It is symbolic of freedom from society and failure. Another major symbolic aspect is water. After struggling, she learns to swim in the ocean. This empowers her and provides her with strength and joy. The bodies of water cited in this novel represent freedom and escape. When she is committing suicide she refers to the Kentucky field for a second time. This represents escape from society, as the first time was escape from society as a child.
Finally, in the end it is the field and the ocean that free her completely. The symbolism in this novel is strong in every chapter. Kate Chopin is a master of using subtle aspects of writing as symbolism. Even the smallest detail or flow of language adds to the storys meaning and emotion. The symbolism in The Awakening is not obvious but is interpreted by the reader. Understanding the symbolism makes the novel more emotional and comprehensible. Chopin displays great talent for the use of symbolism in The Awakening because it truly adds to the meaning of the work.