Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Solitude as the Consequence of Independence
For Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of The Awakening, independence and solitude are almost inseparable. The expectations of tradition coupled with the limitations of law gave women of the late 1800s very few opportunities for individual expression, not to mention independence. Expected to perform their domestic duties and care for the health and happiness of their families, Victorian women were prevented from seeking the satisfaction of their own wants and needs. During her gradual awakening, Edna discovers her own identity and acknowledges her emotional and sexual desires.
Initially, Edna experiences her independence as no more than an emotion. When she swims for the first time, she discovers her own strength, and through her pursuit of her painting she is reminded of the pleasure of individual creation. Yet when Edna begins to verbalize her feelings of independence, she soon meets resistance from the constraints—most notably, her husband—that weigh on her active life. And when she makes the decision to abandon her former lifestyle, Edna realizes that independent ideas cannot always translate into a simultaneously self-sufficient and socially acceptable existence.
Ultimately, the passion that Robert feels for Edna is not strong enough to join the lovers in a true union of minds, since although Robert’s passion is strong enough to make him feel torn between his love and his sense of moral rectitude, it is not strong enough to make him decide in favor of his love. The note Robert leaves for Edna makes clear to Edna the fact that she is ultimately alone in her awakening. Once Robert refuses to trespass the boundaries of societal convention, Edna acknowledges the profundity of her solitude.
The Implications of Self-Expression
Edna’s discovery of ways to express herself leads to the revelation of her long-repressed emotions. During her awakening, Edna learns at least three new “languages.” First, she learns the mode of expression of the Creole women on Grand Isle. Despite their chastity, these women speak freely and share their emotions openly. Their frankness initially shocks Edna, but she soon finds it liberating. Edna learns that she can face her emotions and sexuality directly, without fear. Once her Creole friends show her that it is okay to speak and think about one’s own feelings, Edna begins to acknowledge, name, define, and articulate her emotions.
Edna also learns to express herself through art. This lesson occurs in Chapter IX, when Edna hears Mademoiselle Reisz perform on the piano. Whereas previously music had called up images to her mind, the mademoiselle’s piano playing stirs her in a deeper way: “she saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body.” As the music ceases to conjure up images in Edna’s mind, it becomes for Edna a sort of call to something within herself. Additionally, Mademoiselle Reisz has felt that she and Edna have been communicating through the music: noting Edna’s “agitation,” she says that Edna is “the only one” at the party who is “worth playing for.” Once Edna is aware of music’s power to express emotion, she begins to paint as she has never painted before. Painting ceases to be a diversion and becomes instead a form of true expression.
From Robert and Alcée, Edna learns how to express the love and passion she has kept secret for so long. As with her other processes of language-learning, Edna finds that once she learns the “vocabulary” with which to express her needs and desires, she is better able to define them for herself. A pattern emerges—Edna can learn a language from a person but then surpass her teacher’s use of her newfound form of expression. For example, while Adèle teaches her that they can be open with one another, Edna soon wants to apply this frankness to all areas of her life. And although Robert helps to teach her the language of sexuality, she wants to speak this language loudly, as it were, while Robert still feels social pressure to whisper.
As Edna’s ability to express herself grows, the number of people who can understand her newfound languages shrinks. Ultimately, Edna’s suicide is linked to a dearth of people who can truly understand and empathize with her. Especially after Robert’s rejection of her in Chapter XXXVIII, Edna is convinced definitively of her essential solitude because the language of convention Robert speaks has become incomprehensible to Edna. Although Robert has taught her the language of sexuality, Edna has become too fluent. In this dilemma, Edna mirrors the parrot in Chapter I, which speaks French and “a little Spanish” but “also a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird. . . .” The mockingbird, which merely whistles inarticulate “fluty notes” with “maddening persistence,” resembles Edna’s friends who seem to understand Edna but do not speak back.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Throughout The Awakening, the manner in which each of the characters uses and understands music gives us a sense of Edna’s ideological alignment in relation to the novel’s other characters. Additionally, Edna’s exploration of music and her meditations upon its significance enable her own (visual) art to flourish. Edna first learns about the emotive power of music from Mademoiselle Reisz. Whereas Adèle Ratignolle’s piano playing had merely conjured sentimental pictures for Edna, the older woman’s playing stirs new feelings and probes unexplored emotional territories in her. Mademoiselle Reisz uses music as a form of artistic expression, not merely as a way of entertaining others. In contrast to Mademoiselle Reisz, the Farival twins play the piano purely for the sake of the gathered company. The twins’ association with the Virgin Mary, and, hence, with a destiny of chaste motherliness, links them thematically with notions of how Victorian women should behave. Their piano playing—entertaining but not provocative, pleasant but not challenging—similarly serves as the model for how women should use art. It becomes clear that, for a Victorian woman, the use of art as a form of self-exploration and self-articulation constitutes a rebellion. Correspondingly, Mademoiselle Reisz’s use of music situates her as a nonconformist and a sympathetic confidante for Edna’s awakening.
The difference Edna detects between the piano-playing of Mademoiselle Reisz and Adèle Ratignolle seems also to testify to Edna’s emotional growth. She reaches a point in her awakening in which she is able to hear what a piece of music says to her, rather than idly inventing random pictures to accompany the sounds. Thus, music, or Edna’s changing reactions to it, also serves to help the reader locate Edna in her development.
Images of children, and verbal allusions to them, occur throughout the novel. Edna herself is often metaphorically related to a child. In her awakening, she is undergoing a form of rebirth as she discovers the world from a fresh, childlike, perspective. Yet Edna’s childishness has a less admirable side. Edna becomes self-absorbed, she disregards others, and she fails to think realistically about the future or to meditate on her the consequences of her actions.
Ultimately, Edna’s thoughts of her children inspire her to commit suicide, because she realizes that no matter how little she depends on others, her children’s lives will always be affected by society’s opinion of her. Moreover, her children represent an obligation that, unlike Edna’s obligation to her husband, is irrevocable. Because children are so closely linked to Edna’s suicide, her increasing allusions to “the little lives” of her children prefigure her tragic end.
Edna stays in many houses in The Awakening: the cottages on Grand Isle, Madame Antoine’s home on the Chênière Caminada, the big house in New Orleans, and her “pigeon house.” Each of these houses serves as a marker of her progress as she undergoes her awakening. Edna is expected to be a “mother-woman” on Grand Isle, and to be the perfect social hostess in New Orleans. While she is living in the cottage on Grand Isle and in the big house in New Orleans, Edna maintains stays within the “walls” of these traditional roles and does not look beyond them.
However, when she and Robert slip away to the Chênière Caminada, their temporary rest in Madame Antoine’s house symbolizes the shift that Edna has undergone. Staying in the house, Edna finds herself in a new, romantic, and foreign world. It is as though the old social structures must have disappeared, and on this new island Edna can forget the other guests on Grand Isle and create a world of her own. Significantly, Madame Antoine’s house serves only as a temporary shelter—it is not a “home.” Edna’s newfound world of liberty is not a place where she can remain.
The “pigeon house” does allow Edna to be both at “home” and independent. Once she moves to the pigeon house, Edna no longer has to look at the material objects that Léonce has purchased and with which Edna equates herself. She can behave as she likes, without regard to how others will view her actions. In the end, however, the little house will prove not to be the solution Edna expected. While it does provide her with independence and isolation, allowing her to progress in her sexual awakening and to escape the gilded cage that Léonce’s house constituted, Edna finds herself cooped anew, if less extravagantly. The fact that her final house resembles those used to keep domesticated pigeons does not bode well for Edna’s fate. In the end, feeling alternately an exile and a prisoner, she is “at home” nowhere. Only in death can she hope to find the things a home offers—respite, privacy, shelter, and comfort.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
In The Awakening, caged birds serve as reminders of Edna’s entrapment and also of the entrapment of Victorian women in general. Madame Lebrun’s parrot and mockingbird represent Edna and Madame Reisz, respectively. Like the birds, the women’s movements are limited (by society), 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.
Edna’s attempts to escape her husband, children, and society manifest this arrested flight, as her efforts only land her in another cage: the pigeon house. While Edna views 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 warns: “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.”
Critics who argue that Edna’s suicide marks defeat, both individually and for women, point 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 symbolizes 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 beckons and seduces Edna throughout the novel.
Water’s associations with cleansing and baptism make it a symbol of rebirth. 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 sublime vastness, the sea represents the strength, glory, and lonely horror of independence.
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