Early in the 19th century every person was expected to live up to society’s expectations by following a certain norm, as opposed to the unorthodox society of today. For instance, men were the breadwinners and the ones who worked to earn an honest living for the family. Women, on the other hand were strictly only to keep the household in check and take care of the children. With such specific responsibilities to uphold, no one really found the time to care for their own personal being in fear of becoming a social outcast and such. Responsibility was surely intact, but what about freedom? Individual freedoms weren’t valued very much then, especially for women. In The Awakening, the author Kate Chopin presents a light upon freedom and responsibility from a woman’s point of view. She illustrates certain symbols throughout the story that evoke the two notions.
Freedom is initiated in the novel’s symbolism shown primarily in the places that Edna Pontellier resides. Edna is in a difficult position in life at certain points in the story when she experiences pure freedom away from responsibility as something that she longed for. There is contrast between her normal summer house with her family and Madame Antoine’s house. At the time, responsibility for the children and the home was to be upheld by the wife at all times. . Home is the domain in which she is expected to live unhappily because of her constant duties and ignored by Mr. Pontellier. In the story the women were such an important part of society. With such responsibility at the time it was so unheard of to rebel against one’s husband and defy orders. She does not receive the attention she needs from her husband and ends up spiraling in love with Robert Lebrun. He introduces her to a new world where she can be comfortable by showing her fun and also the way to Madame Antoine’s home. Her home serves only as an impermanent shelter of freedom, but it is not a home. Edna is clearly unhappy and wanting to be rebellious throughout the novel when she feels disrespected. Edna’s newfound world of liberty is not a place where she can remain; it belongs to someone else. It appears to her as a safe haven or a place to let her hair down and relax. When she fainted in church, this is the place where Robert rushed her to so that she could cool off. She discovered a whole new feeling. She had an epiphany and almost half an awakening.
Edna plans to move forward to the pigeon house where she becomes independent and also a shame to her husband. She becomes free in this house even though it’s not much and a home she can afford. This leads to freedom and less responsibility. She was free to be herself and do as she pleased without regard to society’s take on her actions and choices for herself. In the end, however, the little house did not prove to be the solution Edna looked for. While the house does provide her with separation from everyone and independence, it allows her to progress in her awakening and to escape the cage that L©once’s house made. Edna finds herself living differently than she’d expected. Her house was named the pigeon house because it represented domesticated pigeons, which becomes evident in Edna’s fate. Once she moves into the house she no longer has to look at the material objects that L©once has purchased the items that she felt equal to because of the way her husband treated her. Edna’s home is where she’s not treated as a person with dreams, but merely an object. Mr. Pontellier objectifies his wife as he says You are burnt beyond recognition, he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.(5)
While Edna viewed her new home as a sign of her independence, the pigeon house represents her inability to remove herself from her former life, as her move takes her just two steps away. Mademoiselle Reisz instructs Edna that she must have strong wings in order to survive the difficulties she will face if she plans to act on her love for Robert. She notifies: The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth. The wings that are being referred to are of the birds in The Awakening are symbolic of freedom and captivity, where caged birds serve as reminders of Edna and other women of that time’s entrapment. Madame Lebrun’s parrot and mockingbird signify Edna and Madame Reisz, respectively. Like the birds, the women’s movements are limited, and they are unable to communicate with the world around them. The novel’s winged women may only use their wings to protect and shield, never to fly. This symbol for freedom points out the similar wording of the novel’s final example of bird imagery: A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water. If, however, the bird is not a symbol of Edna herself, but rather of Victorian womanhood in general, then its fall represents the fall of convention achieved by Edna’s suicide.
The sea in The Awakening implies freedom and escape. It is a vast expanse that Edna can brave only when she is solitary and only after she has discovered her own strength. When in the water, Edna is reminded of the depth of the universe and of her own position as a human being within that depth. The sensuous sound of the surf constantly summons and seduces Edna throughout the novel. Water’s associates with cleansing and rebirth, therefore freedom and lack of responsibility. The sea, thus, also serves as a reminder of the fact that Edna’s awakening is a rebirth of sorts. Appropriately, Edna ends her life in the sea: a space of infinite potential becomes a blank and enveloping void that carries both a promise and a threat. In its transcendent vastness, the sea represents the strength, glory, and lonely horror of independence.When she makes her way down to the beach for the last time, she thinks of her earthly responsibilities. The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her soul to slavery for the rest of her days . Her only way to elude them and the other responsibilities in her life was to drown herself in the ocean. In many senses, Edna’s suicide is the result of her final awakening that she has been unable to balance a sense of self and freedom with the demands of life. Since she could not create a balance or allow herself to live one life over the other completely, her only choice was suicide. Her awakening happened almost too quickly and her actions as a result of it were too hasty.
The only way for Edna to cleanse herself of both worlds was to enter the sea the site of her baptism into awakening. Towards the end, she felt alternately as an exile and a prisoner, she is at home nowhere. Only in death does she believe that she could hopefully find the things a home offers relief, solitude, and comfort. She finally discovers that freedom was in death. She would be set free from the chains and shackles from society. Freedom and responsibility coincide within the story constantly to frame a woman’s life during the Victorian period.
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