The Awakening is a story full of symbolism and imagery that can have many different meanings to the many who have read it. I have read several different theories on Kate Chopin’s meaning and though some are vastly different, they all seem to make sense. It has been said that Kate Chopin might have been ambiguous just for this reason. At some point, almost everyone struggles with knowing or not knowing their purpose in life, and therefore it seems, that on some level, most who read the story about Edna Pontellier can relate to her in some way. I believe that those who have theorized about this story, have done so based upon their own struggles with the same issue. To me, life is all about self discovery and what one does upon their self discovery. Each time that I read this story, I can feel the pain and the turmoil that Edna experiences before and after her awakening.
The ocean is the center and foundation of this story. The ocean is also part of the scenery and the background, without the ocean, there would be no story. Not only is the ocean the center and the foundation, it is also a symbol of many things in this story. To me, the ocean in this story takes on human characteristics in that to me, it symbolizes a seducer or seductress. The ocean also becomes an escape from reality and symbolizes life itself. The ocean is important because it is what helps bring Edna into her awakening and that is good, in the sense that it helps Edna into finding herself. However, the ocean is evil in that it is responsible for Edna’s demise.
I believe that in the beginning of this story, Edna has not yet discovered who she is or what she really wants out of life. Edna has come to the Grand Isle as a dutiful wife and mother who grew up in an oppressive, unloving and un-nurturing home without her mother. Edna’s marriage is not a loving one, neither she, nor her husband have an emotional connection to each other. Edna goes about her life as a mother and wife in a mechanical fashion, she doesn’t have the mind for it and it’s obvious that her current position where she wants to be although at first she doesn’t see it yet. Edna most likely has never experienced any sort of love or connection with anyone. She doesn’t seem to think very highly about her husband, father, or sisters. Her love for her children is flighty at best. It’s as if she’s been locked in a cage most of her life and has received very little attention leaving her love starved and lonely. I think that she is probably too ripe for her awakening by the time that it happens, which is why her awakening becomes so tumultuous for her. It’s as if she’s been in her cage so long, that once she is released, the results are almost too much to bear.
Edna’s awakening begins with the ocean and I feel that the way Kate Chopin describes the ocean in the beginning of the and throughout the story makes the ocean seem like a seducer or seductress, enticing Edna and awakening her imagination, creativity, spirituality and sexuality. For example, when Edna begins to feel to anguish of her oppression “the everlasting voice of the sea, that was not uplifted at that soft hour broke like a mournful lullaby upon the night.” she begins to cry a flood of tears, which to me makes her seem like a lost and lonely child. I say child because Edna’s emotional, spiritual, and even sexual growth has been stunted or gone untapped. However, later on as Edna begins to make real connections with other people such as Madame Ratingnolle and Robert, she begins to pay closer attention to the ocean, and again there is another incident in which the ocean’s seductive character emerges: “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 mazes of inward contemplation.”
If one takes a close look at that passage itself, it almost sums up the entire story. As the ocean “never ceases” to seduce Edna into her awakening she begins to isolate herself from society ( “to wander in the abysses of solitude”) and begins to lose herself in “mazes of inward contemplation.”
On one hand the ocean is a good thing, because Edna isn’t aware of herself and who she is at first. However, a seductresses and seducers usually aren’t thought of as positives. Seductresses and seducers are usually seen as bad or even evil and can be unceasingly persistent in their pursuits. Once a seductress or seducer gets what he or she wants, the consequences for those who have been seduced are usually negative. In this case, the ocean seduces Edna into finding herself but in the end it costs Edna her life. Even though some may see Edna’s suicide as choosing freedom, suicide in itself is tragic. To take the evil character of the ocean a step further, I will refer to the last chapter of this story where Edna is standing naked at the water’s edge and the “foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet, and coiled like serpents about her ankles.” Most people recognize that serpents themselves are a symbol of evil. Those familiar with the story of Adam and Eve know that a serpent enticed Eve into eating the forbidden fruit and upon doing so they lose their innocence and condemn man to the curse of sin. One could compare the evil of the ocean to the evil of the serpent and Adam and Eve to Edna. The evil of the ocean has seduced the innocent unsuspecting Edna to her doom, which is her death.
I also think that the ocean in this story is her escape from a reality that she was not free to be herself in. In the beginning of the story, the ocean seems to coax her out of her existing life as a dutiful wife and mother and into a life of independence and freedom to do as she chooses. As Edna begins to awaken to her new and true self, she becomes less in touch with her society. She starts by casting off her societal duties and goes on to live in her own house, which of course causes possible scandal amongst her peers. Society’s standards cannot accept the true Edna but the ocean’s “sensuous” touch “enfolds the body in it’s warm embrace” and accepts Edna for who she is and gives her relief from her harsh reality. As Edna becomes more independent, she begins to daydream and imagine outcomes to situations that just aren’t realistic. For instance, upon first glance it seems that Edna doesn’t care what people think if she moves into her own house. However, when Edna begins to see that people are starting to isolate from her because of her actions, she becomes depressed and begins to feel alone. It’s as if deep down, she expected people to eventually accept what she does and to continue treating her as they always did. This is not a realistic way to think. The final straw is when she gets home from the birth of Madame Ratingnolle’s child. Edna imagines that Robert will have waited for her and is asleep inside and she imagines herself kissing him awake and consummating their relationship. However, Edna goes inside only to find the house empty and her hopes dashed. Edna’s imagination only seems to raise her expectations higher making the reality and even greater disappointment. The reality is that no one, not even Robert, can conform to Edna’s way of seeing and doing things. Even though Edna has her independence, she doesn’t want to pay the price for it with loneliness. Therefore, Edna retreats to the only thing that can accept her for who she is, the ocean.
There are many references to birds in this story and this symbolism cannot be ignored. I feel that Kate Chopin might have seen women as like birds. To humans, birds are a symbol of freedom. Freedom is what America was founded on and a bird is America’s national symbol.
I think that Kate Chopin saw women as caged birds, beautiful, graceful yet unable to use their wings to “fly” and express their inner selves as they chose. When Kate is describing women in this story she uses references towards birds several times and birds are always in the background, from the very beginning to the very end.
Edna, is clearly a bird in this story, a caged bird that after being given the taste of freedom can never go back to her cage. The very beginning of the story is with a green and yellow parrot hanging in a cage saying in French “go away! go away! For God’s sake!” I find it interesting that the story begins this way, it’s as if the parrot is talking to Leonce Pontellier. Could the parrot be Edna telling him this herself, or could the parrot be speaking on her behalf? There is also a point in the story where Edna tells Arobin that Madame Reisz once felt her shoulder blades to see if her wings were strong and 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.” Madame Reisz telling Edna that in order to be free from the traditions and prejudices of society one must be strong enough to deal with the consequences that follow. A person does not possess such strength will become “bruised” and “exhausted” and will not be free. In Edna’s case, to be free and be herself is to be a nonconformist, which ultimately results in isolation and loneliness. Isolation and loneliness are what Edna has probably felt most of her life. Edna does not want to conform and yet she does not want to be alone either. Therefore, Edna’s wings are broken and she cannot be free.
At the end of the story, when Edna is alone on the beach she sees a bird with a broken wing “beating the air above, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.” That bird is herself, and seeing the bird with its broken wing, falling to the water, is seeing the reality of what has happened with her awakening. She cannot return to her old life because doing so would be returning to the isolation of her cage, she cannot remain as a nonconformist because she would have to live in isolation from society, therefore she escapes from reality into the accepting ocean whose voice is still seductive, whispering and calling to her.
It is tragic to me that Edna had to choose suicide however, I don’t see Edna as a failure for what she did. I think that Edna was a woman who was ahead of her time, just as some have said Kate Chopin was ahead of hers. The ocean in this story also symbolized life for Edna. Tragically, Edna was not ever afforded the tools necessary to deal with her awakening. Edna was love starved due to her upbringing and her marriage, which made it impossible for her to live life as a lonely nonconformist as Madame Reisz had done. Edna was also born into a society where women were not aloud to be anything but mothers and wives, which are positions that Edna was intended for. At first, Edna feared the ocean and life as an individual, then she is awakened sexually, spiritually, creatively, and emotionally and throws herself into her discoveries, and she learns to swim in the ocean and the void in her life seems to be filled. However, Edna sees terror and death while swimming and begins to feel the terrors of isolation as she casts off her facade. Edna begins to struggle and fight life’s currents, getting caught within the tumult, she becomes exhausted with it all until she can no longer stay afloat.
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