Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is a literary work full of symbolism. Birds, clothes, houses and other narrative elements are powerful symbols which add meaning to the novel and to the characters. I will analyze the most relevant symbols presented in Chopin’s literary work.
The images related to birds are the major symbolic images in the narrative from the very beginning of the novel:
“A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over:
‘Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!'” (pp3)
In The Awakening, caged birds serve as reminders of Edna’s entrapment. She is caged in the roles as wife and mother; she is never expected to think for herself. Moreover, the caged birds symbolize the entrapment of the Victorian women in general. Like the parrot, the women’s movements are limited by the rules of society.
In this first chapter, the parrot speaks in “a language which nobody understood” (pp3). The parrot is not able to communicate its feelings just like Edna whose feelings are difficult to understand, incomprehensible to the members of Creole society.
In contrast to caged birds, Chopin uses wild birds and the idea of flight as symbols of freedom. This symbol is shown in a vision of a bird experienced by Edna while Mademoiselle Reisz is playing the piano.
“When she heard it there came before her imagination the figure of a man standing beside a desolate rock on the seashore. He was naked. His attitude was one of hopeless resignation as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight away from him.” (pp26-27)
In this vision Edna is showing her desire for freedom, desire for escaping from her roles as wife and mother, from her husband Leonce who keeps her in a social cage.
After these episodes, the images related to birds are absent form the narrative until the chapter 29. Following the summer on Grand Isle, where she had awakening experiences, she starts to express her desire for independence in New Orleans through her move to her own house, the pigeon house “because it’s so small and looks like a pigeon house” (pp 84). The nickname of the pigeon house is very significant because a pigeon house is a place where pigeons, birds that have adapted to and benefited from the human society, are kept cooped up.
In this house, Edna wants to enjoy “the feeling of freedom and independence” (pp 79), keeping only the things that she owns, “everything that she had acquired aside from his husband’s bounty” (pp 84). In the end, however, the little house will not be the solution which Edna expected. While it provides her with independence and isolation, allowing her to escape from the gilded cage that Leonce’s house constituted; the pigeon house becomes another cage. It represents her inability to remove herself from her former life, as her move takes her “just two steps away” (pp 79) from Leonce’s house. Edna finds herself cooped again, being an exile and a prisoner at the same time.
Mademoiselle Reisz is one of the most important secondary characters of The Awakening. She provides Edna music that awakes her soul, letters from Robert and advice. She sees Edna as a bird, who is seeking to fly away from society’s conventions and from her responsibilities as wife and mother. Mademoiselle warns Edna:
“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.” (pp 82)
Mademoiselle Reisz seems to know Edna. She knows that Edna will try to fly away from Creole society, but she is not certain if she will be strong enough to succeed. Mademoiselle is in many ways omniscient, warning Edna that her flight may not be successful. However, Edna does not understand Mademoiselle Reisz’s advice:
“I am not thinking of any extraordinary flight. I only half comprehend her.” (pp83).
In the last scene of the novel, Chopin uses again the image of a bird, a very similar image to the one described by Mademoiselle Reisz to Edna:
“A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water”. (pp 113)
This bird embodies Edna’s disillusionment as she learns that her ideals of freedom and independence are not reality in the Creole society of 19th century.
Edna lives in many houses in the novel: the cottages on Grand Isle, Madame Antoine’s on Cheniere Caminada, Leonce’s magnificent house in New Orleans and her “pigeon house”. These houses are used as symbols of the different stages that Edna undergoes through her awakening.
Grand Isle is a place of women (most men only visit it on weekends), full of symbols of domesticity, that is, tangible items that we typically associate with family and traditional values. Porches, pianos, mothers and children are props and properties of domesticity, the elements which belonged to the so-called “women’s sphere” in the 19th century. Edna is placed at the beginning of the novel in this setting. While she is living in the cottage on Grand Isle, Edna is confined within the cage of traditional roles of mother and wife.
Edna’s sleep and rest in Madame Antoine’s house on Cheniere Caminada symbolizes the shift that Edna is undergoing through her awakening. It is also a place of escape from the island of women into a new romantic and foreign world. In this house, Edna acquires knowledge about her soul and her own body.
New Orleans is the bastion of social rules, of realistic life and duties. Edna is expected to be the perfect social hostess, especially by her husband. However she does not follow this role imposed to her and she tries to escape from this social cage through moving to her own house, the “pigeon house” (Symbolism explained in the images related to birds).
Throughout the novel there are some flashbacks to Edna’s childhood in Kentucky, a place similar to New Orleans, where Edna was also caged by the strict figure of her father and by society. However, Edna found in Kentucky a place of freedom in the blue grass meadow away from the ridged rules of society.
Finally, Edna feels “at home” nowhere. Only in death can she hope to find the things that a real home offers: privacy, relief and comfort.
Clothes are a symbol related to the rules and conventions of society. Throughout The Awakening,. In the first chapters of the novel she is fully dressed; slowly in the course of the novel she removes her clothes. This process of nakedness symbolizes the liberation from the social rules imposed to her and also emphasizes her physical and sexual awakening. In the last scene of the novel Edna is totally naked for fist time in her life:
“But when she was there beside the sea, absolutely alone, she cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her.” (pp 113)
This final episode with Edna naked for the first time stresses the idea of rebirth in Edna; she is now “some new-born creature” (pp 113) at the end of her life.
Art becomes a symbol of freedom for Edna. Through her process of trying to become an artist, she is able to express herself and also to acquire a certain economic independence from her husband. However art also becomes a symbol of failure. Mademoiselle Reisz sees becoming an artist as a test of individuality. Edna fails because she is finally unable to defend her individuality against the social rules.
Music, especially piano playing, is also an important symbolic element. The manner in which the characters use and understand music gives the reader a sense of Edna’s ideological position in relation to other characters. There are four characters in the novel that play the piano: Adele Ratignolle, Mademoiselle Reisz and the Farival twins. Each of them, especially Adele and Mademoiselle Reisz, represents a different aspect in the narrative.
Adele Ratignolle does not play for art; instead she plays to keep her children and husband cheerful and to set time for parties. Mademoiselle Reisz, on the other hand, uses music as a form of artistic expression, not merely as a way of entertaining others. Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano playing stirs new feelings in Edna and it makes her discover unexplored emotional territories.
“The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column. It was not the first time she had heard an artist at the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth.” (pp 27)
“She saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her.”(pp 27)
The difference that Edna discovers between the use of music of Mademoiselle Reisz and Adele emphasizes Edna’s emotional growth. Thus, music, or Edna’s changing reaction to it, also helps the reader to locate Edna in her awakening process.
Finally, the Farival twins play the piano purely for the sake of gathered company. Their piano playing is pleasant for the social and conventional ears and similarly it serves as the, model for how women should use art. For a Victorian woman, the use of art as a medium for self-expression and self-exploration constitutes a social rebellion. Therefore Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano playing places her as an outsider in the Creole society; she is rejected and disparaged by this society. In this way, the piano playing becomes a symbol of social rules and regulations.
Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz provide the two different identities Edna associated with herself. These two women symbolize for Edna two different female roles.
Adele serves as the perfect “mother-woman” in The Awakening, being both married and pregnant, but Edna does not follow Adele’s role. For Edna, Adele appears unable to perceive herself as an individual human. She has not identity apart from her roles of mother and wife, therefore Adele exists only in relation to her family, not in relation to herself or the world. Edna wants to be independent, and the role of mother-woman does not provide that. In contrast to Adele, Mademoiselle Reisz gives Edna an alternative to the role of “mother-woman”. Reisz has in abundance autonomy and independence, something that Adele completely lacks. However, Reisz’s life lacks love, while Adele’s life abounds in it. Mademoiselle Reisz’s loneliness makes clear an adequate life, according to Creole society, can not be built upon female independence. Although she has a secure sense of her own individuality and independence, her life lacks love, friendship or warmth.