Symbols & Symbolism in The Awakening by Chopin

Instructor: Liz Breazeale
Symbols are everywhere in literature, including Kate Chopin's feminist novella ''The Awakening''. In this lesson, learn about a couple of the symbols in this famous work and their significance to the plot and themes.

What is Symbolism?

When you see an olive branch, whether pictured on a flag or mentioned in a phrase ('Extending an olive branch,' for example), what do you think of? That's right. An olive branch means peace, or offering peace. Therefore, an olive branch is a symbol for peace.

You've probably heard the word symbolism before - but what does it really mean in a literary context? Symbolism means that the author uses a person, place, or thing to represent a bigger, more abstract idea.

There are some symbols like this in Kate Chopin's well-known The Awakening, a novella about a young wife and mother who begins to discover her independence and break away from her stifling society. In this lesson, you'll learn about two major symbols: birds and the ocean.

Birds

Birds play a major symbolic role throughout this work, and the birds in question come in all shapes and sizes. Birds represent women in the book. And not just any women, but the caged women of Victorian society at the time The Awakening was written.

The world Edna, the book's protagonist, exists in is very different from today's world where women can be educated just the same as men, drive, and pursue any career they desire. In contrast, the women who lived during the Victorian era were confined by the expected gender roles they were pressured to fill - usually just being a wife and mother.

There are plenty of bird images to symbolize this confining, strict world of women. The parrot and the mockingbird owned by Madame Lebrun are caged, confined, and have no way to communicate or be understood by the world around them. Sound familiar? Yep, that's exactly what life is like for Edna in this story. Her husband is unable to see her as an individual with desires beyond the home, and in this way keeps her caged and isolated.

Think about caged birds in another way: they're beautiful and decorative, and they offer songs from time to time. They're ornamental. And this is how women, especially the wealthy women Edna knows, are perceived in Victorian society. As ornamental things of beauty, but without any kind of substance or deeper desires or needs. A woman tells Edna that 'the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings' implying the difficulty any woman would have to break society's rule.

As Edna walks into the sea at the end of the book, 'a bird with a broken wing . . . beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling, disabled, down, down to the water.' An injured bird falls into the ocean. Even though the bird is free from a cage, it is still broken, and must succumb to its fate. Edna chooses to commit suicide, but one could argue she is left with no other choice if she wants to keep her freedom. Victory or tragic loss? Failure to be strong or a rejection and destruction of the Victorian ideal? It's up to interpretation.

Caged birds represent Victorian women in the book
Birds

The Sea

The sea, or, really, the Gulf of Mexico, symbolizes freedom, escape, independence. Edna's awakening truly begins in the water - it's where she learns to swim, something she has always previously been afraid of - and after this incident, her mind begins to turn with new possibilities of independence and the future. This is when Edna begins to wonder who she truly is.

Edna also feels very small in the sea, dwarfed by the world and her small place in it. But this is an awakening in and of itself, really, as she begins to contemplate her place in the universe and her significance. It's also a bit of a rebirth, like a baptism in a way, because Edna is awakening to her true desires and beginning to break away from the strict societal conventions imposed on her.

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