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Naked and Free in The Awakening
The Awakening, by Kate Chopin seems to fit neatly into twentieth century ideals. Chopin addresses psychological issues that must have been difficult for people of the late nineteenth century to grasp. Just as Edna died a premature death, Chopin's book died too. The rejection of this book, at the time, ironically demonstrates the pressure many women must have felt to conform to society. Chopin shows the reader, through Edna Pontellier, that society restricts women the right to individuality. This restriction by society can be seen in the clothing Victorian women wore during the time.
For example, we see clothing used as an important metaphor in the story. Victorian women's clothing was extremely confining, much like their life. The clothing can be seen as a type of "cage" which is apparent when we see Edna and Adele walking to the beach in chapter seven. Adele wore a veil, "doe skin gloves, white gauntlets ... was dressed in pure white, with a fluffiness of ruffles that became her" (478). Adele was the ideal of beauty. Edna, on the other hand, "wore a cool muslin that morning ... a white linen collar and a big straw hat" (478). We learn that "a casual and indiscriminating observer ... might not cast a second glance" (478) towards Edna. The fact that Edna was simply dressed showed her non conformity towards society's standards. When the two women get to the beach, Edna removes her collar and unbuttons her dress at the throat. Her decision not to wear all the garments is a hint at the rebellion to come.
Another obvious example of the symbolism of clothing is seen at the end of the novel when Edna removes all of her clothing before committing suicide. Chopin writes that when Edna was "there beside the sea, absolutely alone, she cast the unpleasant, prickling garments from her, and for the first time in her life stood naked in the open air" (558). Edna seems to be removing her final restrictions before finding her freedom in death. This last rebellion against society seems to give Edna her final "awakening". This awakening can be seen when Chopin writes, "She felt like some new born creature opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known" (558).
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In conclusion, Chopin uses many symbols throughout her book to describe life for Victorian women, including the clothes they wore. Although, the symbolism of clothing is not a predominant one, it does show us the restrictions for women at the time. Edna can find no way to conform to society and yet still maintain her individuality. She, therefore, removes the last of society's confines with her clothing, and gains the ultimate freedom in death.