Use of Symbolism in Chopin's 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. This essay lists some of the major symbols with explanations of their importance.
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 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.
Clothing is also symbolic. 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.
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.
There are many symbolic 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...