Kate Chopin uses symbolism and motifs in The Awakening as a way for Edna Pontellier to recognize her individuality and identity. In Chopin’s novel, the sea is the most important and relevant motif, it represents freedom and uses personal traits that it is given to guide Edna to her transformation, as she forms relationships and tries new hobbies. Edna’s connection with the sea allows the reader to have a better understanding of her awakening and how she breaks through her societal role, as a mother and wife.
Edna and the sea didn’t have an instant connection, she would ride boats casually and admire the oceans beauty constantly but only from a distance. The sea would try and entice Edna to explore the ocean and it’s unknown importance to her, by using one of its personal traits. Choppin gave the ocean personal qualities, a voice and a specific smell, in hopes make it easier for Edna to trust it and what it holds. The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation (12). Choppin gives the sea a voice which Edna responds back to The voice of the sea speaks to the soul (12), she understands the ocean is trying to tell her something but is not sure what, making it more intriguing. When she does experience the sea, she admits to feeling a certain ungovernable dread…when in the water, unless there was a hand nearby that might reach out and reassure her (Choppin, 24). She grew insecure, not only about the water but about her life in general. She was relying on someone to help push her when it comes to facing her fears, she needed to learn how to be on her own in the ocean. The start of her awakening begins on the beach with Robert Lebrun, their relationship is exciting and new, especially compared to the way she feels about her husband and their relationship. These thoughts about her current life lead her to analyze her whole life and who she is, this starts to worry her and makes her recognize the possibilities she has.
As summer went on Edna found herself spending most of her time with Robert, they would chat all day about anything, they learned a lot about each other and enjoyed one another’s presence. Robert was aware of how badly Edna wanted to learn how to swim, so he arranged swimming lessons for her and she would go. Thanks to Robert these lessons encouraged Edna to learn how to swim and introduced her to her awakening, A feeling of exulation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given to her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength… (24). Once Edna recognized how freedom felt, she didn’t want to turn back, this was the feeling she had been waiting for and she knew there were more if she was willing to set herself free. As she continues to swim she notices she has to turn around because she physically can’t go any further, this makes her think about the restrictions that she has in her life as a woman. But to her unaccustomed vision the stretch of water behind her assumed the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome (24), Society expected her to play different two roles and preform them well, she knew she was not the model creole wife, who dedicated their entire beings to taking care of their children and devotion to their husbands. Madame Ratignolle was the ideal creole woman, she centered her life around her family, her lifestyle and opinions clashed with Edna’s desire for independency. Instead she is inspired by Mademoiselle Reisz,, who was unmarried, had no children, and spends her waking moment playing the piano. Edna is one of the only people who appreciates the music she preforms at the Grand Isle, they form a great relationship, Edna’s desire for independency continues to grow as she watches Mademoiselle Reisz take pride in being an artist and own her own.
Edna began to feel like one who awakens gradually out of a dream, a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream, to feel again the realities pressing into her soul. The physical need for sleep began to overtake her… Edna arose, cramped from lying so long and still in the hammock. She tottered up the steps, clutching feebly at the post before passing into the house (27). Edna had been relaxing in that hammock for some time, only for Leonce to interrupt and ask that she come inside multiple times only to be shut down. Normally she would’ve gotten up without even thinking twice about it, she was so used to be on his leash and granting his wishes but her ocean experience changed her. She questioned how she let herself obey him for so long, she was aware that her stubbornness irritated him but didn’t let it bother her. When she got up from the hammock she felt as if she were on another planet, dismissing her husbands commands and sticking up for herself when she recognizes the way he talks to her. Edna is forming her new identity that is true to who she is and what she believes, the next day Edna declared that She was blindly following whatever impulse moved her, as if she had placed herself in alien hands for direction, and freed her soul from responsibility (28) this meant she was going to start doing whatever her heart desired and doing that she started spending more time with Robert.
When Robert decides to leave for Mexico with little explanation or any emotion, Edna is destroyed inside, she knew what she felt for him and she thought he felt the same way. His departure gives Edna time to herself and allows her to think, little did he know she was thinking about him a lot of the time he was gone. She was confused, hurt, and felt alone. She isolated all of her feelings to everyone except Madameoiselle Reisz who communicates with Robert by letters while he is away which Edna takes part in and reads whenever Robert writes to her. To keep herself busy she spent time with Madameoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle, she became interested in art and taught herself how to sketch and paint, and her new hangout spot was the race tracks. While she is there a man by the name of Alc©e Arobin joins her, he keeps her company while her husband is away, Edna doesn’t think anything of it at first. She is invested in Robert and is still married. But Alc©e is not worried, he makes a habit out of going after married woman, they spend time together and have sexual intercourse but Edna doesn’t let him have control of her. Robert returns from Mexico to confess his love for Edna only to announce he is leaving forever. Edna is destroyed, thus looking into the sea for the same feeling she received the first time. The touch of the sea is sensuous (100) the ocean is talked about as if it were a person throughout the whole novel, Edna goes to the sea to feel free and the way it feels makes her feel good about herself but this time she didn’t stop swimming. She could not get the same feeling as she did before, she was sad and alone, during all of this she thought of her family and how they would feel, Mademoiselle Reisz and how she would laugh about this, and Robert of course, and how he didn’t understand. She remembered the night she swam far out and recalled and 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 (100).
The sea helped Edna realize her individuality by almost being used as a person to represent the freedom Edna was desperate for. It had personal traits, such as a voice, specific smell, and the way it could seduce Edna. Once Robert leaves, Edna acts just as society wants her to, she feels unwanted and depressed because the man she is in love with left her convincing herself she has nothing and then commits suicide. The ocean helped guide Edna into her awakening by using personal traits and showing Edna a new world, by introducing her to the feeling of being free.
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