Essay on Symbols in 'The Awakening'

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Kate Chopin was born in St.Louis, Missouri in the year 1850, Kate was raised by her mother and grandmother after her father passed when she was only 5 years old. after her husband’s death she began writing. She published over one hundred stories, essays and sketches in literary magazines. Chopin is best known for her novels at fault published in 1890 and the awakening published in 1899. The feminist content and message of the awakening caused an uproar which hurt Kate and in the remaining years of her life before her passing in 1904 she wrote only few short stories and only two were published. During her life Kate never considered herself to be a feminist she only saw herself as a modern writer and despite that fact her portrayal of women as strong and capable and equal to men certainly did not help her claims at that time. Chopin did not even consider herself a suffragist although the timing of her publishing the awakening was too convenient when the suffrage movement was heading at it’s peak and the content of her novel was portraying a women who is suffering the consequence of an oppressive society.

Plot of the awakening

A housewife who’s name is Edna Pontellier the protagonist of the book who is married to Leonce pontellier, their story is set in the late 18th century to the early 19th century, the married couple and their two children are staying in their summer home at the beginning of the story in New Orleans, Louisiana, Edna’s character is soon to be seen as having a lot of emotions under the surface which she keeps to herself, she feels really unhappy with her marriage and overall she’s in a constant state of depression, we can see from the context of her speaking to her friends that edna never really wanted to be a mother, this role of motherhood was not something that she had chosen for herself but rather it was pushed upon her, she never felt that maternal feeling towards her children like all the rest of her friends do towards their children. The author paints Edna as the woman who is trying so hard to make herself fit into that world’s social norms but is failing. Edna starts spending time with a young man named Robert whom she soon starts fantasizing about having an affair with him as the story progresses we see that Edna as the title of the book suggests starts having multiple awakenings which I will be discussing later on in this paper. Edna’s first taste of awakening was her trying to make life changes and trying to do things that she thinks are going to make her feel better about herself and her life, she moved out of her home and she picked up painting as a hobby, and lastly she starts having random sexual encounters with random men, and then she is finally able to start the affair with Robert, who had moved away because of the feelings that he started having for a married women (Edna) but now he’s back and they agree to be together and to run away together which in the end never happens because Robert’s conscience of believing that its wrong for them to runway together and that they could never really live a normal life going against their society thats never really going to accept them no matter where they run off to, Edna however doesn’t care and she is broken hearted over Roberts leaving and in the end of the novel she goes swimming and depends on the way you interpret the ending of the story but my interpretation is that she kills herself, some might argue that Edna goes swimming at the end of the novel to awaken as a new person, or someone who is done with her what resembles a mid-life crisis and now after she drowns herself she comes back from the water a brand new being who is more aware of the social restrains and duties of a woman, what validates this interpretation is the fact that it makes sense in the way that water is a symbol of rebirth so she goes in as a women who lost her way and she awakens as a new being who is self aware. But of course that is a a very misogynistic reading and interpretation of the novel, what I believe had happened by the end of the story is the fact that Edna from the beginning of the story was struggling to fit in into an oppressive society who gave her a specific role that she had to live and die by. Edna’s awakenings which I will get into later on in this paper were her realizing little by little and slowly that she is living a life that she did not choose and one the she cannot escape without being condemned and ridiculed by her society so she starts acting out and rebelling in every way possible to her in order to feel free. Her suicide is her taking her own life back from the patriarchal society that had owned her and controlled her all her life, none of the things that Edna did made her feel alive or truly free, her realization that no matter what she does the society is always going to be the same an oppressive one who will keep trying to pull Edna back into being the “normal woman”, so her one last act of freedom was gaining control back of her own life by taking her own life that way she makes suer that patriarchy does not win. Edna’s suicide can be seen as metaphorical or literal as follows :

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Metaphorical: Edna’s death could be metaphorical in the way that she is now free from the life that she was imprisoned by. in this case the broken winged bird she sees right before she goes into the sea could represent edna freed from her old restrained life, she will awaken free from the restrictions of society

Literal: After being left by Robert the only person who she felt free with, she came to the conclusion that she’s never going to obtain true freedom, her retaliation against society and the norms and what her role should be

(hooking up with random men leaving home etc) , that did not bring her true freedom and I believe edna found this out by the end of the novel and upon her discovery she felt so trapped that she did the only thing she could think of, she goes back to the place where she felt most free, the place with the endless possibilities, the sea.

now we can look at it as she was looking for rebirth or we can look at it as what it is, the only escape that she had left, her last hope at true freedom, the ultimate freedom, taking her own life, edna failed at obtaining freedom in life, so she tries to obtain it in death, her suicide was the only thing she could do to regain control of her life, taking it back one last final time.

The awakenings of edna :

Edna Pontellier is awoken to three important pieces of her own being

  • first : artistic, she awakens to her artistic and creative potential she rediscovers herself through art and uses it as a way to self express ; art is known to be a way of escaping reality artists most of the time are very emotional and they don’t know how to express their emotions so they use art as a way of self-expression and individualism.
  • second : sexual. Edna’s sexual awakening is what occupies most of the story, it comes into play when edna realizes that she is a human being who is capable of thinking sexual thoughts about others her sexual awakening begins upon meeting Robert.
  • third : self awareness
  • the final and one true awakening in the novel is the awakening of the self from the very beginning she goes on a journey of self discovery

Edna’s third awakening in my opinion is her self realization and awareness, edna became aware of the fact that she will never be happy and she will never attain the level of freedom that she wanted which leads her to take her own life.

Edna’s true awakening is the understanding of herself as a human being. But the awakening goes further still. She also becomes aware, at the end, of her role as woman and mother. At one point, early in the novel and before this awakening, Edna tells Madame Ratignolle, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me”.

Feminist Symbolisms in the novel :

  • The bird with the broken wing :

This bird could represent Edna’s failure to find freedom she commits suicide as a response to her failure to true freedom and real happiness.

  • The water and the sea:

water in literature is used to symbolize life, and purification ; edna found joy and freedom in swimming she often done it as if she was looking to be baptized or reborn; which makes sense that she would chose the sea as her way of ending her own life, she craved freedom and the sea is where she most felt free is it was fitting to do it in the sea edna felt trapped , the sea is known for being very wild and unlimited and untamed, edna in the end of the novel kills herself by going to the sea and drowning herself and that could very well represent her strong desire to be free, dying in the infinite potential of the sea

“she grew daring and reckless overestimating her strength, she wanted to swim far out where no woman had swum before”

Also water could represent edna’s sexual awakening , it was by the sea where she fell in love with Robert and it was by the sea where she felt in touch most with her sexuality.

“the voice of the sea is seductive , never ceasing whispering ,clamoring, murmuring, inviting, the soul to wonder”.

  • The setting of the novel :

The awakening is set in the summer of new Orleans Louisiana, the humidity of the summer the hotness of it feels sinful and it paths the way for edna’s sexuality to unravel, also the humidity of the summer can sometimes be suffocating reflecting the way edna feels in her life.

In Room of Ones Own by Virginia Woolf, Woolf expresses the social attitudes that were extreme, how social attitudes towards women were oppressive if women don’t have the ability to express themselves they resort to things like suicide. In Virginia Woolf women writing is their self expression.In the awakening edna’s inability to express herself truly leads her to commit suicide.

Kate Millett: Sexual politics

Kate defines femininity as the primary vehicle of women’s oppression and calls upon male dominated insinuations to allow women the opportunity to participate fully in the public wold, making activities of industry politics, art and science. Edna’s character is considered unfeminine in the novel because she wanted to pursue art. Women’s oppression was not seen as an issue. Millett offers a comprehensive critique of patriarchy in western society and literature “ Any culture that privileges men by promoting traditional gender roles”. The main issue in the novel The Awakening was the forcing of gender roles upon the characters in the novel. At the time Edna’s struggle to fight these gender roles was considered a big character flaw, because these gender roles were implanted very deep in society’s consciousness it was not seen as oppression to demand for a women to stick by them. which made Edna a very controversial character in the eyes of many. It was seen as the norm for women to only have specific roles in society nurturing, weak, submissive and emotional. women aren’t the only victims of gender roles Millett suggests that both men and women are victims of this ideology that was drilled in people’s minds since the very moment they come into this earth. Men also have specific roles they need to live up to like being rational, strong, protective decisive.

Other Critical Reviews of The Awakening

The Awakening is a worldly famous work of fiction, it’s popularity had resulted in many groups of people having and sharing their own different interpretations of the book.

When Kate published this novel it was not received well by critics, not at all, at a time where a woman’s role in society was not up for debate or discussion it is not very shocking that this work of literature was bound to receive some hate and have a controversial reputation. The story of Edna was way ahead of it’s time, but it also was very important that it was told and shared when it did. Every time period in history had some certain things where it was taboo to be even talked about let alone be written about and published for the public to view, so when critics reviewed this book as shocking it is understandable but the shock was necessary. I believe that life imitates art and what we read about decades ago helped in shaping the kind of people we are today so maybe if it wasn’t for Kate’s willingness to be as controversial as she was and her willingness to face all negative reviews of her work, the feminist movements that we have today wouldn’t be where they actually are now, so for that we have to be grateful for the minds that dare to go beyond what is normal for their time period.

Some readings of this book however were not interrupted as feminist at all. Some viewers saw this book as a woman’s fight against herself and not society, the struggles of someone who is psychologically ill and simply not happy. Obviously suicide is a huge theme in the story, so it was natural that some critics chose to view the story as a psychologically troubled woman who had to commit suicide by the end of the book to raise awareness for mental health problems.

Others saw the book and Edna’s suicide as a story of sacrifice, in fact this was the exact interpretation of The Awakening that I had taken in a previous literature course. Apparently many critics and viewers of Kate’s novel believe that Edna’s story and main struggle and downfall was centered around the fact that she had one day awakened to the fact that she was not a good mother to her children and her choice for suicide was a mere selfless sacrifice upon the realization that she was not ever going to become as good of a mother as her other friends and that she was a constant disappointment to everyone around she wanted to spare her family the less than acceptable life that she was providing them with and give them the chance at a better future and a better life by eliminating herself and taking her own life.


  • Kate Chopin - The Awakening 1899
  • Kate Chopin - Biography of the author
  • Feminist theory in literature - an article
  • Feminism and psychoanalysis : Helen Cixous, Luce Irigaray
  • The Awakening : some contemporary responses
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Essay on Symbols in ‘The Awakening’. (2024, May 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from
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