Symbols in The Awakening

Symbols Examples in The Awakening:

Chapter II 1

"as if lost in some inward maze of contemplation or thought...."   (Chapter II)

Notice Edna’s association with the inner world of “contemplation and thought.” Throughout the novel Edna’s eyes are often emphasized as a symbol to highlight her reflective nature. Even whilst describing Edna’s outward appearance, Chopin makes it clear that Edna has a rich inner life.

"Their voices were high and penetrating...."   (Chapter V)

Notice the imagery of the sea and how it contrasts with the “high and penetrating” voices of Edna’s children. The sea is “seductive” and surrounded by the “soft and languorous” breeze, which creates an atmosphere of freedom and possibility. The children’s shrill voices call Edna back from this romantic appreciation of the sea, symbolizing the confines of motherhood and marriage that Edna feels. As you read, continue to pay attention to the imagery of the sea, as it will symbolize freedom for Edna throughout the novel.

"A certain ungovernable dread hung about her when in the water,..."   (Chapter X)

The sea is a complex symbol in the novel as it represents both freedom and fear for Edna. Rejecting Victorian social conventions for one’s freedom can bring with it potential risks. Women like Edna, who resisted the role of the “happy homemaker” were deemed unseemly outsiders. Thus, Edna’s fear of the water symbolizes a fear of radical freedom that could have serious consequences in both the public and private realms of her life.

"she was seeing with different eyes..."   (Chapter XIV)

Edna knows that she has changed significantly at some point during her vacation at Grand Isle. Notice that her eyes are emphasized again here, in this case, having been figuratively replaced with “different eyes.” The change in Edna’s eyes thus symbolizes her inner transition from asleep to awakened and reborn, in a sense.

"Edna held out her hand, and taking the ring, slipped it upon her finger. ..."   (Chapter XVII)

As the last line of the chapter, this action is incredibly powerful. Chopin creates a tone of crushing defeat to make Edna’s hopelessness apparent. When Edna slips the ring back on her finger, Chopin emphasizes that Edna’s outburst has made no difference in the grand scheme of things. Society has won and Edna remains cemented in a role she does not want to inhabit.

"Edna was sobbing,..."   (Chapter XXI)

Notice that Edna’s feelings for Robert resurface when she is again experiencing an awakening of her soul. She listens to the music that deeply moves her at the same moment that she reads Robert’s letter about her. This coincidence once again signals that Robert symbolizes Edna’s awakening soul.

"The atmosphere of the stables and the breath of the blue grass paddock revived in her memory and lingered in her nostrils...."   (Chapter XXV)

The horses at the track carry an important metaphorical meaning. Since classical antiquity, horses have symbolized the more animalistic aspects of human nature. The Greek centaur, for example—half-human, half-horse—represents the power of the unconscious with its animal and sexual drives. The sight of the horses stir these drives within Edna. Edna’s growing awareness of her sexual nature is, after all, one of the novel’s primary themes.

"She carried away with her the sound of their voices and the touch of their cheeks. All along the journey homeward their presence lingered with her like the memory of a delicious song. ..."   (Chapter XXXII)

Because she is no longer tied to the social expectations of a married woman, Edna can experience her relationship with her children with the same passion she holds for music. She compares the sound of their voices to that of Madame Reisz’s playing the piano. In this way her children begin to represent her liberation rather than her oppressive circumstances.

"breaking off a spray of Mademoiselle's geranium;..."   (Chapter XXXIII)

Edna’s gesture, breaking off “a spray of… geranium”, bears symbolic importance. Flowers are a classic poetic motif for desire and fertility. The geraniums Edna harvests serve as a symbol for her resurfacing desire and love for Robert.

"There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air. ..."   (Chapter XXXIX)

The novel ends with two final images that are surprisingly calm compared to the sounds that she hears. She pictures bees and smells “pinks,” a type of pink flower. These two images symbolically represent spring and rebirth and suggest that even though the heroine of this story drowns, there is hope for the future.

"How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! how delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known...."   (Chapter XXXIX)

In her final act of liberation, Edna peels away her clothes and stands with nature. In comparing herself to a “new-born” she suggests that her vision of the world and her position in it is divorced from everything that came before this moment. This is symbolic of her rebirth as an independent individual.