The awakening is a short story written by Kate Chopin, who is considered one of the first feminist authors of the 20th century. She was a first-class writer whose ability to raise life from a blank page knows few equals. Willa Cather, later a famous novelist herself, praised The Awakening. Cather acclaimed the style of Chopin and also compared the protagonist to Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, heroines of classic European fiction. Chopin described the awakening of Edna Pontellier in a physical and psychological way.
In this essay I intend to illustrate Kate Chopin’s approach to the symbol of birds throughout the story. Birds represent having the wings of possibilities, freedom of flight, precision and timing, perspective, vision and individuality. Birds are the souls of humans who have reached a high state of perfection. They represent the process of opening to a higher wisdom and knowledge.
Birds have the ability to walk on earth, float on water and ascend into the air. This is thought to be the state of ultimate earthly freedom; to be a creature that is of the air, land and water.
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The main character, Edna Pontellier, is similar to a bird, wishing to spread her wings and seek for individuality. The symbol of birds shows Edna’s emotions and her good or bad choices that she makes in her journey of self-discovery. Edna at first is seen as a beautiful parrot locked in the cage: “A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door” (page 5)
but in the end the image transforms into a disabled bird that flies freely:
“a bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water”. (page 120)
In literature, mockingbird symbolizes innocence, purity, honesty, which I see in Edna’s accomplishing the duty which her mother and wife roles assume. Even if she is not the role model in her mothering, I think she is trying her best to raise her children and to give them wings to fly, wings she does not acknowledge she has as well.
By making a parallel between Edna and the mockingbird, I’d like to point out the fact that the author wanted us to see Edna’s changing, from the honest, innocent woman who is taking care of her family in the first part of the story, to the woman who loses interest in her mother and wife roles in the second part.
In her moment of uncertainty, after she learns to swim and lives her moment of awakening, bit by bit she starts to lose her honesty and her love towards her own family. Her awakening is sexual in part, but it is also a search for creativity, as suggested by her attempt to paint. She seeks the advice of the only artist she knows-Mademoiselle Reisz. She reads Emerson, the voice of individualism. From these sources, she gains the courage to challenge the authority of her husband.
Edna was encouraged to defy society’s expectations and roles by Mademoiselle Reisz and to act as a bird, even checking her ‘wings’ in a hug: “she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. ‘The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.” (page 88)
The advice that Edna gets from the pianist includes a reference to a bird that will have wings strong enough to fly above traditions and prejudices. In her fight for independence, Edna becomes a threat to the values of society.
After Mr. Pontellier leaves home to go on a business trip, Edna has made the drastic decision to abandon her husband’s home and move into what has been dubbed the “pigeon house.” (page 90) Pigeons are connected to the symbol of house and home, and because of that she took her home “independence” in the same area she lived with her family.
Pigeons actually symbolize determination and the ability to overcome whatever obstacles lie in a person’s path. Edna’s separation from marital restriction enables her to seek her own individuality, having an affair with another man. She prefers to define her role more actively rather than to be a passive object. The characteristics of pigeons and Edna are closely linked, both expressing rebellious attributes.
In the end, Chopin uses the image of a falling bird to represent Edna’s defeat in escaping from the confines of society: “a bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water”. (chapter 120)
As Edna walks into the Gulf, she realizes that the only way to escape from society’s ideals is to end her life, swimming until she gets tired and dies.
“She went on and on. She remembered the night she swam far out, and recalled the terror that seized her at the fear of being unable to regain the shore. She did not look back now, but went on and on, thinking of the blue-grass meadow that she had traversed when a little child, believing that it had no beginning and no end. Her arms and legs were growing tired.” (page 120-121)
“The shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone. She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank again. ” (page 121)
In conclusion, the text leaves open the question of whether the suicide constitutes a cowardly surrender or a liberating triumph. In my opinion, Edna is a weak character, with not much strength in living and pursuing her dreams, so she cowardly surrenders.
Throughout the book, Edna has become like a bird unable to find a way to free itself from constraints and limitations that have been put by society and its mental state or ignorance.