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Langston Hughes and Kate Chopin use nature in several dimensions to demonstrate the powerful struggles and burdens of human life. Throughout Kate Chopin's The Awakening and several of Langston Hughes' poems, the sweeping imagery of the beauty and power of nature demonstrates the struggles the characters confront, and their eventual freedom from those struggles. Nature and freedom coexist, and the characters eventually learn to find freedom from the confines of society, oneself, and finally freedom within one's soul. The use of nature for this purpose brings the characters and speakers in Chopin's and Hughes' works to life, and the reader feels the life and freedom of those characters.
Nature, in the works of Chopin and Hughes serves as a powerful symbol that represents the struggle of the human soul towards freedom, the anguish of that struggle, and the joy when that freedom is finally reached. In The Awakening, the protagonist Edna Pontellier undergoes a metamorphosis. She lives in Creole society, a society that restricts sexuality, especially for women of the time. Edna is bound by the confines of a loveless marriage, unfulfilled, unhappy, and closed in like a caged bird. During her summer at Grand Isle she is confronted with herself in her truest nature, and finds herself swept away by passion and love for someone she cannot have, Robert Lebrun.
The imagery of the ocean at Grand Isle and its attributes symbolize a force calling her to confront her internal struggles, and find freedom. Chopin uses the imagery of the ocean to represent the innate force within her soul that is calling to her. "The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in a maze of inward contemplation." (p.14) Through nature and its power, Edna, begins to find freedom in her soul and then returns to a life in the city where reside the conflicts that surround her. Edna grew up on a Mississippi plantation, where life was simple, happy, and peaceful. The images of nature, which serve as a symbol for freedom of the soul, appear when she speaks of this existence. In the novel, she remembers a simpler life when she was a child, engulfed in nature and free: "The hot wind beating in my face made me think - without any connection that I can trace - of a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than her waist.
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When Edna finally learns to swim, she finds herself frightened, alone, overwhelmed, and surrounded in a vast expanse of water. Her experience swimming in the ocean for the first time parallels her discovery and immersion in the true nature of her soul: "As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself . . . A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her sense." (p.28) She is frightened by her own self-discovery - yet is enraptured by it. It is this contradiction and this confrontation with nature that is brings about Edna's self-discovery and metamorphosis within the novel. It is more than love for Robert that drives her to be free from the restrictions of this society. Instead, it is her discovery of her own self that causes her to shun the confines of society. Edna's "self-discovery" awakens her, and she is able to greet her own soul, a soul filled with passion and sexuality. However, even though she has found freedom within her own soul, she cannot be truly free in this urban society.
The symbol of the ocean appears again after Edna has been awakened and discovered the power of her self. Edna, with an inner sense of freedom, confronts the realization that the shackles of society that require her submission are powerful forces which will try to bend and taint her new sense of freedom. Again, we see the contradiction of the pure bliss of self-discovery and awakening conflicting directly with the restrictions of society that do not allow Edna to be free. This contradiction causes massive internal struggle for Edna, and for her, there seems to be only one way to resolve this conflict. This confrontation is brought to light at the end of the novel through the symbol of the ocean: "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." (p. 108) Edna has discovered something inside her and she cannot return to the person she was. Her soul is free, but the burden of that freedom is too much, it overwhelms and overtakes her so that she cannot exist in this world. It seems to Edna that life is not worth living in a prison. As a result, at the end of the novel, the ocean beckons and she follows. She swims into the inviting and seductive sea, never to return. In the ocean, she is free.
Similarly, in Langston Hughes' poetry, nature serves as a strong symbol for triumphs and defeat of the soul. He uses the imagery of rivers to demonstrate the speaker's connection with the earth and nature in his poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers". In this poem, the speaker in the poem has "known rivers"; he speaks of "rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins." Rivers symbolize the lifeline of the earth. When the speaker refers to the rivers, he is reflecting on his connection with the earth. He feels a part of the earth, and it is almost as if his soul is kindred to the earth when he says, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." In this poem, Langston Hughes uses the imagery and symbolism of rivers as an expression of the oneness between the soul and the earth. The speaker's soul is united with nature; he is like a river in that he is connected with earth, nature, and himself.
In the poem "Sun Song", by Langston Hughes, there is a similar expression of the affinity between man and earth, yet a subtle contrast exists. In this poem, nature is not viewed as wholly perfect. The speaker sings of "Sun and softness," and "Sun and the beaten hardness of the earth". The softness of the sun and the hardness of the earth demonstrate the dichotomy of man's relationship with nature. Man basks in the beauty of nature while at the same time struggling against its forces. The earth is hard and we toil under the sun, yet we can appreciate the wonder of "Sun and the song of all the sun-stars." Hughes' musical language expresses without disdain this relationship between man and the earth. Again, in the poem "Dream Variations", Hughes demonstrates how nature helps celebrate and free the soul. The tone of the poem is celebratory and the speaker is joyous as he rejoices at the end of a day: "To fling my arms wide In some place of the sun, To whirl and to dance Till the white day is done. Then rest at cool evening Beneath a tall tree . . ." The speaker's soul is free and liberated as he rejoices with nature. He celebrates in the sun, and rests beneath the comfort of a tree. Nature not only provides man with a means to express the freedom of his soul, but it also gives man relief.
In contrast, a different side of nature is depicted in Hughes' poem, "Song for a Dark Girl". The language in this poem paints a macabre picture of a racist south. In this poem, nature is harsh, unfair, and cruel. Instead of providing man with a means to express the freedom of his soul, nature confines the soul. Nature serves as a symbol for the captivity and death of the soul. The black man that is lynched in the poem could not be free in this society, and the girl he leaves behind mourns at the sight of the tree. For her, the image of this tree brings anguish to the soul:
Way Down South in Dixie (break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.
The tree is the object on which this girl's lover was hung. Nature becomes a symbol for the burden of the anguish of the soul. Nature's role in this poem not only kills the young lover, but also suffocates the soul of the young girl. Love is a naked shadow On a gnarled and naked tree Nature bears witness to the evils of man, the sufferings of love, the loss of a loved one to a brutal and inhumane death. Nature serves not as a symbol of the burden of the freedom of the soul, but as a symbol for the captivity and death of the soul. Here nature is the picture of desolation, evil, and raw human pain.
Although at first glance, Chopin and Hughes seem to be two very different authors with different life experiences and struggles. A closer look at their works reveals a similarity. In The Awakening, nature's intensity and power is depicted in the ocean and water. Chopin contrasts the struggles and freedoms in life through the imagery of nature; the joy experienced running through tall grasses in a meadow to a frightening encounter with the unending abyss of the ocean. Similarly, in Langston Hughes' poetry, a Negro speaks of his connection to rivers, deep in the earth, of the softness of the sun, and yet he also speaks of the gnarled tree from which hangs the body of a bruised, dead Negro.
The imagery in these two works appear to represent quite different human experiences, but a closer examination reveals that they both represent the basic human struggle that plagues the characters/speakers in these works. In these works, the images of nature serves as a symbol of the freedom of the soul, yet simultaneously serving as a symbol for the burden of achieving that freedom, and the anguish of the struggle. Both Chopin and Hughes use nature in their works in the form of sweeping imagery, poignant metaphors, and precise, powerful symbolism. The use of nature for this purpose draws their characters/speakers to life and adds great depth to their works. Nature not only represents humankind's greatest bliss, but also symbolizes our greatest enemy . . . the earth on which we live.
Works Cited and Consulted
Chopin, Kate. "The Awakening." 1899. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Ed. Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969. 881-1000.
Delbanco, Andrew. "The Half-Life of Edna Pontellier." New Essays on The Awakening. Ed. Wendy Martin. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. 89-106.
Gilmore, Michael T. "Revolt Against Nature: The Problematic Modernism of The Awakening." Martin 59-84.
Giorcelli, Cristina. "Edna's Wisdom: A Transitional and Numinous Merging." Martin 109-39.
Martin, Wendy, ed. New Essays on the Awakening. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.
Papke, Mary E. Verging on the Abyss: The Social Fiction of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1990.
Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969.
Showalter, Elaine. "Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book." Martin 33-55.