English novelist Jane Austen once said, “A woman, especially, if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.” In Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, Chopin critiques the society in which women who stray from their duty as mothers, or the expected married female behavior, are subject to harsh judgment and further disapproval from their husbands. Through Chopin’s use of symbolism, imagery, and foreshadowing, Chopin showcases the struggle, Edna Pontellier, the protagonist, faces as she tries to rise above the restrictive and oppressive roles of women and finally become free from her responsibilities in the turn-of-the-century American South.
In order for her audience to reflect on the demands of marriage and Edna’s longing for freedom, Chopin employs many examples of symbolism throughout the novel. A rather large reoccurring symbol throughout The Awakening is the sea. An example of symbolism occurs when Edna recognizes that the sea functions as a lover to her. Chopin writes, “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, and inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in the mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch if the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” (17)Chopin uses sexual language and symbolism to not only reveal the yearning Edna experiences for the caressing touch and vision of endless freedom in the sea, but that her desires are in no way subject to strictly human contact. Another example of her utilization of symbolism occurs nearing the end of the novel when Edna begins her decent into the ocean and notices “a bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.”(132) Chopin uses the bird as a representation of Edna’s failure to completely attain her desires without shouldering her responsibilities as a mother and wife, and meeting the demands of society. Mademoiselle Reisz states previously in the novel that “the bird that would soar above the level of plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings,” ( ) meaning that in order to defy the pressures, needs, and wants of society one must have courage. Chopin leaves Edna with the idea that since she could never attain the free life that she envisioned for herself, she lacks strong wings. Edna’s suicide is her ultimate defiance against the expected role of women in the Victorian society, she alone decides to have the final say in her fate, not allowing for husband, children, or society to choose for her. Through the use of symbolism, Chopin portrays Edna’s longing to be free from the expectations of society.
Not only does Chopin use numerous examples of symbolism throughout The Awakening to showcase not only Edna’s sexual awakening, but also uses imagery to critique the role of genders in the turn-of-the-century American South. An example of imagery occurs when Mr. Pontellier describes Edna as “the sole object of his existence,” as different from the rest of society because she has allowed for herself to become so burnt: ‘“What folly! To bathe at such an hour in such heat!’ exclaimed Mr. Pontellier. ‘You are burnt beyond recognition,’ he added, looking at his wife as one looked at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.” Mr. Pontellieronly views Edna as a piece of personal property that has been damaged, but also different and damaged in the eyes of society. An example of sexual imagery occurs when Edna’s hearing of Mademoiselle Reisz playing of the piano, and is aroused to an orgasmic level: “But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the wave’s daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled; she was choking blind with tears. Mademoiselle had finished….. ‘Well how do you like my music?” she asked. The young woman was unable to answer; she pressed the hand of the pianist convulsively.’ (31) By using this sexual imagery, Chopin suggests that love and physical desire closely relate to one another. Another, rather large example of sexual imagery found in The Awakening occurs in the leading up to Edna’s affair with Arobin. Chopin states, “His hand had strayed to her beautiful shoulders, and he could feel the response of her flesh to his touch. He seated himself beside her and kissed her lightly upon the shoulder…. He did not answer, except to continue to caress her. He did not say a good-night until she had become supple to his gentle, seductive entreaties. (107) Edna has sex with Arobin because his kiss awakens her desire and further awakens for sexual emotions that are more powerful than reason, which is why she feels no remorse towards her actions. Chopin, by having Edna fling her wedding ring, “Once she stopped, and taking off her wedding ring, and flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it lying there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But made her small little boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the glittering circlet.”(61) Chopin showcased the Edna’s awakening that her marriage to Mr. Pontellier is a sham. By putting the wedding ring back on, “And here’s your ring ma’am under the chair.” Edna held out her hand, and taking the ring she slipped it upon her finger,”(62) she is once again submitting to society. By using such vast amounts of imagery throughout The Awakening, Chopin enables the reader to view and understands the difference in gender roles and the yearnings of both to willingly and reluctantly conform to society.
Throughout Chopin’s The Awakening, Chopin employs numerous examples of foreshadowing to allow the reader to see into the future of the choices that affect Edna in her process of becoming free.An example of foreshadowing occurs when Mademoiselle Ratignolles warns Robert that Edna might take his affections seriously. Mademoiselle Ratignolles states, “She is not one of us; she is not like us. She might take the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously.”(24)By Mademoiselle Ratignolles warning Robert not to peruse relations with Edna, and Robert insisting that in the in fact does want to have relations with her, this example foreshadows a romantic relationship between the two later in the novel. Another example of foreshadowing occurs when Edna recognizes that she is losing interest in her marriage. Chopin states, “She could not have told why she was crying. Such experiences as the foregoing were not uncommon in her marriage. They have never before have weighed much an abundance of her husband’s kindness and a uniform devotion which had come to be tactic and self-understood. An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her conciseness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul’s summer day. It was strange and unfamiliar.” Chopin shows the reader that this occurrence acts as the beginning of Edna losing sight and interest in her marriage and this being the motivation for her to flee away from the home she shares with her husband and two children. However, the largest example of foreshadowing that Chopin uses in this novel occurs in the final chapter, when Edna she goes for her last swim. Chopin states, “A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses. But by and effort she rallied her staggering faculties and managed to regain the land.” (34) By foreshadowing Edna’s possibility of death by drowning, Chopin allows for the reader to see that Edna has now confronted the possibility of her death. Accepting then, that to commit suicide will be the only way to become emancipated from the entrapping nature of marriage.
Through the use of symbolism, imagery, and foreshadowing, Chopin depicts the dark and twisted struggle of Edna Pontellier. This struggle, through romantic and realistic awakenings, descends tragically until her only ability to recognize her life and true principles culminates in her suicide. However by using these techniques, Chopin’s depicts a character whose lack of care for American superiority is not an individual flaw, but rather a flaw for the culture that treated women as property and forced social order and gender roles. If society does not heed in Chopin’s warning and critique, society will continue to be subject to these gender roles.