3 October 2013
For as long as the art of literature has been practiced, esteemed authors have prided
themselves in their keen use of symbolism. A symbol can be any person, place or thing within a story that is representative of something else; symbols often appear to be insignificant when first mentioned, but are ultimately brought full circle and expounded upon, their deeper meanings exposed to the reader. This is done through recurrence.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin is an excellent example of a novel in which symbolism plays a clear and vital role. Chopin’s choice of symbols accentuate Edna’s feeling of emptiness and entrapment and strive to be satisfied and free. Birds, as used in literature, are generally symbolic of either freedom by flight or entrapment. The novel begins with two birds, a parrot and a mocking bird. Both are in cages, which can be paralleled to the metaphorical cage placed on women of the Victorian era. The parrot can only repeat the same phrase in French and English, “Allez vousen! Allez vousen!
Sapristi! That’s all right!”(1) and the mockingbird can only sing. The extent of their entrapment extends to not only their physical situation, but not being able to communicate with those around them. This correlates to Edna’s feeling of disconnection to the rest of the world. Mademoiselle
Reisz, Edna’s mentor of sorts, highlights the importance of having “strong wings” in order to have a successful awakening:
Well, for instance, when I left her today, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth. Whither would you soar? (116) Throughout her journey, Edna becomes the personification of a bird with broken, weak wings, unable to free herself and fly away, “A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling and fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.” (159) This observation foreshadows Edna’s death; but more importantly, the bird with the broken wing symbolizes
Edna’s breaking point in that she will never find permanent fulfillment. She realizes that her affair with Robert, as well as her relationship with her children, will eventually melt away, furthering her struggle and eventually she, like the bird, will fall down to the waters of loneliness. Edna’s pursuit for an awakening is also manifested by her exploration of the arts namely through music, painting, and the learning of three languages. Edna’s love for music acts as a catalyst for her awakening; one of the most profound moments of the story occurs when she hears Mademoiselle Reisz play the piano:
The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column. It was not the first time she had heard and artist at the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to make an impress of the abiding truth... She saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing or despair, But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears
blinded her. (44)
This is a pivotal moment in which Edna is truly ready to embrace what she had long desired. It also gave her a taste of feeling beyond the material world, “She waited for material pictures... She waited in vain... the passions themselves were aroused within her soul.” (44)
Throughout the novel, Edna makes several attempts to produce a painting that satisfies her ever persistent selfcriticisms, much to her dismay; she is excited to be pursuing artistry, but