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Symbols in The Awakening

The Awakening is a novel full of symbolism; within each narrative segment there is often a central and powerful symbol that serves to add meaning to the text and to underline some subtle point Chopin is making. Understanding the meaning of these symbols is vital to a full appreciation of the story. Here are listed some of the major symbols with explanations of their import. It is important for you to discover symbols and meanings on your own, and these are here only to offer assistance. It might also be useful in considering all symbols in the text, not just those listed below, to remember this quote by Sandra Gilbert:
Porches and pianos, mothers and children, skirts and sunshades - all these are the props and properties of domesticity, the key elements of what in the nineteenth century was called "women's sphere," and it is in this sphere, on the edge of a blue gulf, that Edna Pontellier is securely caged when she first appears. . . she is confined in what is not only literally a "woman's sphere" but, symbolically speaking, the Woman's House. . . every object and figure [here] has not only a literal domestic function and a dreamlike symbolic radiance but a distinctively female symbolic significance" (47).

Art:

Art becomes a symbol of both freedom and failure. It is through the process of trying to become an artist that Edna reaches the highest point of her awakening. Edna sees art as a way of self-expression and of self-assertion. Mlle. Reisz sees becoming an artist as a test of individuality. Edna fails because her wings are too weak.

Birds:

Birds are major symbolic images in the narrative. They symbolize the ability to communicate (the mockingbird and parrot) and entrapment of women (the two birds in cages; the desire for flight; the pigeon house). Flight is another symbol associated with birds, and acts as a stand in for awakening. The ability to spread your wings and fly is a symbolic theme that occurs often in the novel. Edna escapes her home, her husband, her life, by leaving for the pigeon house. Mlle. Reisz lectures Edna on the need for strong wings in artistic endeavors.

Clothes:

Edna is fully dressed when first introduced; slowly over the course of the novel she removes her clothes. This symbolizes the shedding of the societal rules in her life and her growing awakening and stresses her physical and external self. As she disrobes, the reader is presented with an internal voyeuristic view. As MacCurdy points out, "Edna's dress opposes external nature, but more importantly, it begins to oppose her inner nature. A division exists between her and her environment as well as between her social character and her awakening instincts" (59). When she commits suicide she is finally naked, she has shed everything she has in her quest for selfhood. But it is not only Edna who is symbolized in clothes, Adele is more "careful" of her face in the seventh chapter and wears a veil. Both she and Madame Leburn constantly make clothes to cover the body, and the woman in black and Mlle. Reisz never change their clothes, symbolizing their distance from any physical attachment.

Food:

There are several symbolic meals in the text and each stress mythic aspects in the text. The meal on Cheniere Caminada occurs after she awakens from a fairy tale sleep; the dinner party in chapter thirty is viewed by some as a re-creation of the Last Supper.

Houses:

There are many houses in the novel: the one on Grand Isle, the one in New Orleans, the pigeon house, the house in which Edna falls asleep on Cheniere Caminada. The first two of these houses serve as cages for Edna. She is expected to be a "mother-woman" on Grand Isle and to be the perfect social hostess in New Orleans. The other two are places of supposed freedom. On the island she can sleep and dream, and in the pigeon house she can create a world of her own. In the same way, places have a similar significance. Grand Isle itself is a place of women. Most men only visit on weekends, and while there go to places of their own like Kiles's hotel. Cheniere Caminada is then a place of escape off this island of women, into a new, romantic, and foreign world. It is also similar to a garden, a Garden of Eden, where Edna gains knowledge. New Orleans is the bastion of societal rules, of realistic life and duties. Kentucky, for Edna is simply New Orleans in a different place; ridged with rules and full of unhappy memories. New York and Mexico are men's Grand Isles, and both Leonce and Robert leave Edna for these places, where they do business with other men.

Learning to swim:

Edna has struggled all summer to learn to swim. She has been coached by the men, women, and children on Grand Isle. In chapter ten, Chopin uses the concept of learning to swim as a symbol of empowerment. It provides Edna with strength and joy. Also attached to the concept of swimming are the ideas of staying afloat and getting in over one's head. Edna manages to do both.

The moon

The moon has many symbolic meanings in The Awakening. It is used as a symbol of mythic power and connects Edna with the goddess Selene and the associated implications. She is strong and commanding, the goddess of the hunt. She is sexually aware of Robert for the first time, the fertility aspect of Artemis. Moonlight also symbolizes the struggle Edna has with the concepts of sexual love and romantic love. At the end of chapter ten, delicate images of "strips of moonlight," are interposed with strong sexual feelings, "the first-felt throbbings of desire." Joyce Dyer suggests that this juxtaposition "symbolically anticipates the problems Edna will have determining the relationship between sex and romance" (58).Go back and reread chapter 10.

Ocean, Gulf, or Sea:

The ocean is a symbol of both freedom and escape. Edna remembers the Kentucky fields of her childhood as an ocean, she learns to swim in the gulf, and she finally escapes into the sea. The ocean is also a source of self-awareness, both an outward knowledge of the expansion of the universe and an inner direct obsession with self. The sound of the surf calls to her, comforts her throughout the novel, and acts as a constant beckon in the text. As you read, notice how often, even in New Orleans away from the sea, the language mimics the sound of the surf or the actions of the water.

Piano playing:

Music is an important symbol in text, both Adele and Mlle. Reisz play the piano. Each woman functions to underscore a different aspect of the narrative. Adele is considered a musician by Leonce, but she does not play for art, instead she does so to keep her husband and children cheerful and to set time for parties. Mlle. Reisz, on the other hand, is disliked by all, but is granted status as a musician by only Robert and Edna. The issue of the piano playing echoes the issue of placement in society. If you follow the rules and norms whatever you accomplish is considered great, if you defy those rules you are shunned and dispairaged. Thus, the piano playing becomes a symbol of societal rules and regulations.

Sleep:

Sleep is an important symbolic motif running through the novel. Edna's moments of awakening are often preceded by sleep and she does a great deal of it. Robert Levine calls it the "sleepiest novel in the American literary canon" (71) and sees Edna's sleep patterns as a rebellion against natural rhythms. Sleep is also a means of escape and of repairing her tattered emotions. In fairy tales, sleep is a key ingredient.

Neal Wyatt (1995)  [contact at nwyatt@leo.vsla.edu]
Kate Chopin Study Text