Chopin challenges the gender roles and expectations imposed on married women during the nineteenth century in her novel, “The Awakening.” The main protagonist, Edna, initially symbolizes the conventional woman; she is married to Léonce Pontellier and they have two children. Later on at Grand Isle, she experiences dissatisfaction with her life and marriage. Edna experiences a stirring in her soul that exposes contradictions between her natural self and “gendered” self. She wants to break free from social norms that bind her to motherhood, and this is her natural self in conflict with her “gendered” identity. To be free, however, is not always an easy choice to pursue.
The sea represents the broad space for self-discovery. Several times in the novel, the sea beckons Edna to explore what it means to be in the sea, or more figuratively, what it means to be free in its waters, because it will give her a sense of freedom. Edna is with her children, when the sea calls to her with its natural and mystifying beauty: “The sun was low in the west, and the breeze soft and languorous that came up from the south, charged with the seductive odor of the sea” (Chopin 30). The sea becomes a person with a distinctive smell. It is like food that wants to respond to Edna's inner hunger. She is hungry for freedom and the sea seduces her to come and taste what it is like to be free, at least physically and imaginatively, while swimming in it. Since she is with her family, she strives to remember her “proper” place in society. She is a married woman and she is also married to her gender roles. Caldwell underscores these conflicting social and individual roles: “From an early age she recognized the division between the internal and external self-one of which conforms while the other one questions” (2). Edna's soul longs for the sea, because it can help her escape her real world: “The voice of the sea speaks to the soul” (Chopin 34). When Edna swims, she discovers the freedom of finding herself. Swimming removes her physical boundaries, which also expands her idea of her “self” and who she truly is. Edna struggles to swim in the beginning, because she fears drowning, which indicates her fear of going against the waves of society. When she learns how to swim, she becomes empowered to know more about this freedom. She says to herself: “How easy it is…It is nothing…why did I not discover before that it was nothing. Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby!” (Chopin 71). Swimming helps Edna understand that she can be free to explore the child inside her. She has not grown up emotionally, because she has always lived to serve the men in her life. First, she served her father's needs and ambitions, and now she serves her husband's. The sea reminds her that it is time to also uncover what she wants for herself. The sea also stands for the expanse of self-transformation. The sea has its extremes; it is filled with chaos and calm. Sometimes, it makes sailing and swimming so convenient and peaceful, but other times, it threatens life because of its stormy waves. Edna understands that if she allows herself to submerge into the freedom of the ocean, she will be transformed in the process. The sea comforts Edna as it makes her feel bold and free: “The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (Chopin 301). This is the part of the sea that makes her feel safe about her new “be-ing.” The sea can calm her, as she feeds her inner needs. The sea can help her become more confident as a new woman. Edna, as the novel progresses, is becoming another person, ...Show more
Several types of birds appear repeatedly in The Awakening, a book which, surprisingly, doesn't have the subtitle A Birdwatcher's Guide To The the Greater New Orleans Area.
We're going to break down the cameos made by our feathered friends.
The parrot and the mockingbird
At the start of the book, the parrot shrieks and swears at Mr. Pontellier. Now, we’re going to take a wild guess and say that the parrot represents Edna – or, more specifically, that it gives voice to Edna’s unspoken feelings. Also, it’s in a cage, which is a form of literal imprisonment that highlights Edna’s figurative imprisonment.
The mockingbird, also caged, likely represents Mademoiselle Reisz, what with its odd markings and the whistling notes it produces. We learn at the start of the novel that the mockingbird is perhaps the only one who’s capable of understanding the parrot’s Spanish. By the end of the novel, Mademoiselle Reisz is the only one capable of understanding Edna.
Caged birds in general are representative of women during the Victorian Era, who expected by society to have no other role besides that of wife and mother. It’s reasonable to think of the women as living out their lives in gilded cages – present for decoration, given every comfort, and banned from any real freedom.
Mademoiselle Reisz’s comment
Skeptical of the fact that Mademoiselle Reisz is the only one who understands Edna? Well, she says that "the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings." In other words, you need courage to defy society...especially in the way that Edna wants to defy it.
Bird with the broken wing
As Edna is about to walk into the ocean, she sees "a bird with a broken wing . . . beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling, disabled, down, down to the water." This bird could represent Edna’s failure to find freedom – her failure to "soar above the plain of tradition." The bird has a broken wing—the opposite of the "strong wings" Mademoiselle Reisz said a high-flying bird needs. And Edna clearly lacks those "strong wings"—she drowns/commits suicide as a response to her failure to flout societal expectations and find happiness.
Of course, another (sunnier) interpretation is that Edna’s plunge into the water is a defiant rejection of Victorian womanhood and that the bird represents the destruction of that irksome ideal. We'll let you be the judge.