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Kate Chopin's novella The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a woman who throughout the novella tries to find herself. Edna begins the story in the role of the typical mother-woman distinctive of Creole society but as the novelette furthers so does the distance she puts between herself and society. Edna's search for independence and a way to stray from society's rules and ways of life is depicted through symbolism with birds, clothing, and Edna's process of learning to swim.
Chopin mentions birds in a subtle way at many points in the plot and if looked at closely enough they are always linked back to Edna and her journey of her awakening. In the first pages of the novella, Chopin reveals Madame Lebrun's "green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage" (Chopin 1). The caged bird at the beginning of the novella points out Edna's subconscious feeling of being entrapped as a woman in the ideal of a mother-woman in Creole society. The parrot "could speak a little Spanish, and also a language which nobody understood" (1). The parrot's lack of a way to communicate because of the unknown language depicts Edna's inability to speak her true feelings and thoughts. It is for this reason that nobody understands her and what she is going through. A little further into the story, Madame Reisz plays a ballad on the piano. The name of which "was something else, but [Edna] called it Solitude.' When she heard it there came before her imagination the figure of a man standing on a desolate rock on the seashore His attitude was one of hopeless resignation as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight away from him" (25). The bird in the distance symbolizes Edna's desire of freedom and the man in the vision shows the longing for the freedom that is so far out of reach. At the end of the story, Chopin shows "a bird with a broken wing beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water" while Edna is swimming in the ocean at the Grand Isle shortly before she drowns (115). The bird stands for the inability to stray from the norms of society and become independent without inevitably falling from being incapable of doing everything by herself. The different birds all have different meanings for Edna but they all show the progression of her awakening.
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Another way that Chopin represents Edna's journey to her ultimate awakening is through the mention of clothes. Clothes as a rule are symbols of the rules and expectations of society. Society conventionally expects the women to at all times be properly dressed and covered up just as Edna is when she is "wearing a cool muslin also a white linen collar and a big straw hat" even while walking on the beach with Adéle Ratignolle (14). The proper clothing that Edna wears represents her fulfillment of the expectation of society for a woman and wife. At the very end of the story "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" (115). The shedding of Edna's clothing signifies her shedding of everything she has known. She is spiritually reborn just as she was born physically: naked.
Another symbol that Chopin continuously relates back to throughout the plot is the progression of Edna's ability or lack thereof to swim. "Edna had attempted all summer to learn to swim. She had received instructions from both the men and women; in some instances from the children A certain ungovernable dread hung about her when in the water, unless there was a hand near by that might reach out and reassure her" (27). Edna shows that she has a fear of the unknown, a fear of the thought of having to do things alone, and that she constantly needs support or at least the knowledge that help and support is nearby. "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 over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water She would not join the groups in their sports but intoxicated with her newly conquered power, she swam out alone" (27-28). Edna's realization that she no longer needs the help or support of others to swim represents her awakening to the idea that she can be an independent woman, she can do things on her own and be her own person. "The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke She did not look back now, but went on and on She thought of Léonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body, and soul Exhaustion was pressing upon and over-powering her but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone. She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, and then sank again" (115-116). This final journey into the ocean for Edna represents her final awakening as an independent person who has drawn herself away from everything and everybody to be herself and feel empowered as a woman. The development of Edna's ability to swim ultimately leads to her rebirth as an independent woman and at the same time the ending of her life.
The progression of the novella is in parallel with Edna's awakening as are the symbols that Chopin used to demonstrate it. Chopin wrote this novelette to educate women on the importance of finding their true selves and not limiting themselves to the ideals of their husbands. Chopin uses these major symbols to convey her major focal point of writing this novella. Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993.