Symbolism in Kate Chopin's The Awakening
Chopin's The Awakening is full of symbolism. Rather than hit the reader on the head with blunt literalism, Chopin uses symbols to relay subtle ideas. Within each narrative segment, Chopin provides a symbol that the reader must fully understand in order to appreciate the novel as a whole. I will attempt to dissect some of the major symbols and give possible explanations as to their importance within the text.
Art itself is a symbol of both freedom and failure. In her attempt to become an artist, Edna reaches the zenith of her awakening. She begins to truly understand pure art as a means of self-expression as well as self-assertion. In a similar way, Mlle. Reisz sees the path to becoming an artist as a test of individuality. Edna ultimately fails because her "wings are too weak." She knows what she wants, but she doesn't have the self-determination to realize her goal.
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...