Symbolism in Chapter 17 of Chopin’s The Awakening

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Symbolism in Chapter 17 of Chopin’s The Awakening

The end of Chapter 17 in Chopin’s THE AWAKENING offers a richly compressed portrait of a woman desperate to break through the bonds of domesticity and embark into the unknown. The passages (pages 74 and 75) immediately follow the dinner scene in which Edna first announces to Léonce that she will longer observe the ritual of Tuesday reception day. After Léonce departs for the club, Edna eats her dinner alone and retires to her room:

“It was a large, beautiful room, rich and picturesque in the soft, dim light which the maid had turned low. She went and stood at an open window and looked out upon the deep tangle of the garden below. All the mystery and witchery of the night seemed to have gathered there amid the perfumes and the dusky and tortuous outlines of flowers and foliage. She was seeking herself and finding herself in just such sweet half-darkness which met her moods. But the voices were not soothing that came to her from the darkness and the sky above and the stars. They jeered and sounded mourning notes without promise, devoid even of hope. She turned back into the room and began to walk to and fro, down its whole length, without stopping, without resting. She carried in her hands a thin handkerchief, which she tore into ribbons, rolled into a ball, and flung from her. Once she stopped, and taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it lying there she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But her small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the glittering circlet.

“In a sweeping passion she seized a glass vase from the table and flung it upon the tiles of the hearth. She wanted to destroy something. The crash and clatter were what she wanted to hear.”

The scene neatly encapsulates Edna’s rage at being confined in the domestic sphere and foreshadows her increasingly bold attempts, in subsequent chapters of the novel, to break through its boundaries. At first glance, the room appears to be the model of domestic harmony; “large,” “beautiful,” “rich” and “picturesque,” it would appear to be a welcoming, soothing haven for Edna. However, she is drawn past its obvious comforts to the open window, a familiar image in THE AWAKENING. From her vantage point in the second story of the house, Edna (who at this point in the narrative is still contained by the domestic/maternal sphere – she is “in” and “of” the house) gazes out at the wider world beyond.

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"Symbolism in Chapter 17 of Chopin’s The Awakening." 19 Jun 2018
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Her garden is unkempt; the phrase “deep tangle” suggests primordial forests as well as an interior complexity on the psychological level. The image of the garden also recalls the original garden, that of Eden, site of humanity’s coming into sexual knowledge/sin. These themes are elaborate by Chopin’s description of the garden’s mutable appearance in the dark; we cannot see the flowers there, only their “dusky and tortuous outlines.” “Dusky” is an interesting word; coming on the heels of “perfume” it carries echoes of “musky” (recalling a primal, animal sexuality) as well as its original reference, “dusk-like.” From an optical perspective, dusk is a time of day when light fades and objects lose their colors; Edna cannot “see” the flowers; what she strains to see in the darkness are colorless shapes whose contours are shifting. If Edna had hoped to be “soothed” by her glimpses of the outside, she is jarred by the images she glimpses. Nothing is as it seems by the dying light of the sun; shapes shift, colors fade and troubling visions taunt her.

We are told that Edna is “seeking” herself in the garden, but nighttime brings a host of disturbing, otherworldly visions. The “witchery” that accompanies nightfall summons laughing, “jeering” spirits, whose domain is far greater than her own private sphere; the voices she hears issue from “the sky above” and “the stars.” This imagined cacophony recalls her husband’s earlier fear of being ridiculed by New Orleans society for ignoring the Tuesday ritual. Edna, gazing into the garden to find an exterior source of harmony, confronts the very source of what haunts her: fear of societal disapproval. These ghostly voices, which are “devoid of hope,” “without promise,” must be silenced by some decisive act.

The remainder of this paragraph, and the one that follows it, describe Edna’s successive attempts to silence these voices and to reclaim her space/self. First, Edna withdraws into the room and begins pacing back and forth – an act typical of a caged animal. Her first act of protest is to tear her “thin handkerchief,” a symbol perhaps of her femininity, into ‘ribbons”; these she rolls into a ball (circular image) and “flings” from her. This first act of thrusting away what is unwanted, however, produces little effect; the handkerchief ball is too soft to strike on impact or to make any noticeable sound, procuring no release for Edna.

Next she rips the wedding ring, symbol of her marriage, from her finger; Chopin again uses “flung” to describe the action of throwing away forcefully. But, like the handkerchief, the ring’s fall to the ground is muffled by a carpet. Encased by a “soft” cushion of domesticity, Edna is unable to “destroy” the symbol of her oppression. Edna’s impotence is underscored by the diminutive reference to her “small boot” “stamping” (as a child would) upon the band of gold. Unlike a heavy, rough man’s boot, her dainty footwear is unequal to the task of crushing the ring; it binds her mercilessly, like the bonds of slavery (Chopin suggests as much when she uses the word “indenture”). Although it looks at first glance to be “a little glittering circlet,” its encompassing sphere suffers no injury from her attacks. The bonds of marriage, the passage suggests, are nearly impossible to break with force.

All of these gestures – from pacing the floor, to flinging the handkerchief, to throwing down the ring, to stomping on it – represent increasing levels of defiance and efforts to destroy. A larger, more decisive act is required; this she provides with a “sweeping gesture,” the word “sweeping” suggesting the act of cleansing away the old that one does with a broom. Edna also picks a more suitable object for destruction, a delicate glass vase, whose fragility makes it an easy target. On this third and last “flung,” she achieves her object: the vase “crash[es]” and “[clatter]s,” its sounds finally subsuming those of the haunted voices from outside.

The image of the glass vase functions on many symbolic levels. It suggests Edna's rarified domestic sphere, as the wife of a wealthy Creole; it also certainly brings to mind conventional, turn-of-the-century notions of women as fragile, beautiful objects. By breaking the vase, Edna "shatters" these conventions. To another way of looking, though, destroying the vase is a senseless act; Edna has the satisfaction of hearing the "crash" and "clatter," but it leaves her essentially unchanged. For real fulfillment, she aspires to create, not destroy.

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