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.