What is the symbolic importance of the lady in black and of the two lovers? These characters often appear at the same points in the novel; what is the significance of this pairing?
The lady in black represents the conventional Victorian ideal of the widowed woman. She does not embark on a life of independence after fulfilling her duties as a wife; instead, she devotes herself to the memory of her husband and, through religion, to his departed soul. If Léonce were to die, a widowed Edna would be expected to lead her life in such a socially acceptable manner. Edna longs for independence from her husband, but the lady in black embodies the only such independence that society accepts in women: the patient, resigned solitude of a widow. This solitude does not speak to any sort of strength of autonomy but rather to an ascetic, self-effacing withdrawal from life and passion. It is as though the widow’s identity is entirely contingent upon her husband: the fact of his death means that she, too, must cease to experience the pleasures of life. Throughout the novel, this black-clad woman never speaks. Her lack of self-expression reinforces the lack of individuality underlying her self-governed but meaningless life.
The two young lovers are obvious mirrors of Robert and Edna, displaying the life they might have had together, had they met before Edna’s marriage. At several points in the novel, the lady in black follows the young lovers. Her solitude and mourning symbolize the eventual failure of every union and, thus, the imminent failure of Robert and Edna’s relationship.
What is the symbolic meaning of Edna’s first successful attempt to swim?
Paradoxically, Edna’s first swim symbolizes both rebirth and maturation. When she descends to the beach, she is described as a “little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who . . . walks for the first time alone.” Before her awakening, Edna is afraid of abandoning herself to the sea’s embrace, feeling an “ungovernable dread . . . when in the water, unless there was a hand near by that might reach out and reassure her.” Early in The Awakening, the sea is described as “seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.” The sea represents truth and loneliness, a vast expanse of solitude and vulnerability that Edna has long been afraid to enter. Her relationship with Robert has caused her to begin to develop and explore her own identity. As Edna discovers for the first time her own power, she begins her rebellion. Her swim in the ocean shows that she is no longer dependent on the help of others, as was expected of women, but instead finds strength and support within herself.
Before her rebirth, Edna was trapped in a perpetual childhood of feminine dependency. When she realizes that she is, in fact, swimming, Edna shouts, “Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby!” Edna’s shout of triumph symbolizes her shedding of the prolonged childhood forced on Victorian women. During the first six years of her marriage, Edna had resisted Léonce’s will only in momentary spurts, always eventually conceding and conforming to his authority. Now, however, she will no longer be ruled as a child. Becoming reckless and over-confident, she wants to swim “where no woman had swum before,” and she reaches out “for the unlimited in which to lose herself.” She extends her arms and explores the expanse of her new world.
Edna’s awakening is not complete with this swim though, for, looking back, the distance to the shore seems to her “a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome.” Dread of death seizes her and she realizes the flip side to independence: she can rely on nothing but her own strength to get her back to safety. Her failed attempt to swim far beyond the traditional waters of womanhood implies that Edna does not have the staying power required to withstand the consequences of defying social conventions.
One might read Edna’s quick exhaustion in the water as a foreshadowing of her death, which is brought about by a similar inability to fulfill her goal of transcending society. Or, her suicide may be read as her “completion” of her first swim. By the end of the novel, Edna comes to the realization that she has no place in the world around her, and her continued awakening and increasing acts of independence have given her the strength and courage she lacked during her first swim, the courage necessary to remove herself forever from the grasp of any other human being.
Early in The Awakening, the narrator remarks that Léonce thinks of Edna as “the sole object of his existence.” What evidence does the novel provide to support this declaration?
While Léonce continually expresses devotion for his wife and concern for the well-being of his family, he seems to hold a double standard regarding his and Edna’s respective roles in their marriage. Early in the novel, Léonce returns home late after a night at the club, but rather than allowing Edna to sleep, he insists on waking her to tell her about his evening. He expects her to perform the role of devoted audience, and yet earlier in the afternoon he had shown little interest in speaking with her, leaving to go to the club just after she had returned from her swim. It seems that Léonce invents a fictitious fever for one of their sons out of his annoyance with Edna’s disinterest—Edna finds nothing wrong with Raoul when she checks on him. When Edna returns from her son’s bedroom, Léonce proceeds to reproach her mothering skills. He upsets Edna and then falls asleep, leaving her to deal with her discontent on her own.
Though he means no harm in his treatment of Edna, Léonce is not entirely blameless. His sparse knowledge of his wife may be the result of his prioritization of work over family. During their summer vacation on Grand Isle, he spends the weekdays working in New Orleans, “eager to be gone” because he looks forward “to a lively week in Carondelet Street.” Furthermore, he takes a long business trip when the family returns to New Orleans, despite having been concerned enough about Edna’s behavior to warrant going to the doctor for advice. It is only in her husband’s absence that Edna truly changes, discovering herself and the pleasures offered by others.
Because he sees Edna as a possession and not as an equal, Léonce never makes an effort to understand her feelings, nor does he seek out her opinion on any matters. Moreover, just as one might choose one’s clothing or furnishings based on what they will “say” to others who see them, Léonce worries not about Edna herself, but about what others think of her and how this will reflect back on himself. He cares most about his social standing. For example, when Edna abandons her Tuesdays at home, Léonce warns her that she could jeopardize their place in high society instead of asking about the motivations behind Edna’s actions. Similarly, when he learns that Edna plans to move out of the big house, he does not express concern for her decision to remove herself from the family home, a symbol of their marriage and relationship, but worries instead about what the move might suggest to others about his financial situation.
Thus while Léonce does dote upon his wife and works hard to bring money into the household, it is really only her material well-being and comfort that he makes the “sole object of his existence”: he does not possess enough insight to worry about her emotional and psychological health. Indeed, insofar as Léonce regards Edna as a pretty pet and the finishing touch to the traditional household, one could read the above quote with a certain irony: for in Léonce’s eyes, Edna is indeed an “object.”
1. How does the text use clothing and garments (or the lack thereof) to portray Edna’s rebellion against Victorian norms?
2. Of the many awakenings Edna undergoes in the novel, which are most important to her progress? Which may be considered “rude” or unexpected awakenings?
3. Explore the full implications of the various images of birds in the novel. How do the different species of birds mentioned—parrots, mockingbirds, pigeons—symbolize different ideas?
4. Throughout the novel, Edna feels caught between the way others see her and the way she sees herself. Identify several moments in which this struggle is apparent. How does the text portray Edna’s growing awareness of these contradicting views?
5. Some critics view Edna’s suicide at the end of the novel as a failure to complete her escape from convention—an inability to defy society once stripped of the motivation of a man by her side. Others view her suicide as a final awakening, a decision to give herself to the sea in a show of strength and independence that defies social expectation. Which interpretation do you find more compelling, and why?