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

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.

Read more about water and drowning as a motif in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.


Chopin includes a number of references to clothing or “garments” throughout the novel, and collectively, these references serve as a symbol of Edna’s public identity as a mother and housewife. In this case, clothing represents the outermost layer of a person, or the identity that an individual puts on around other people. Early in the novel, Edna’s identity revolves around being Mr. Pontellier’s wife and the responsibilities she has to serve him. She likens this lifestyle to “a faded garment which seems to be no longer worth wearing” in Chapter 16, essentially suggesting that her existence as a housewife has lost its allure. Edna acknowledges that her public identity, or metaphorically, her clothing, no longer aligns with her true desires and therefore should be abandoned.

Chopin uses the symbol of clothing in another metaphor that appears after Edna sees Madame Ratignolle give birth. In the aftermath of an episode which offers a clear example of Victorian society’s expectations of women, Edna describes her emotions as “a somber, uncomfortable garment, which she had but to loosen to be rid of.” This clothing metaphor represents a distinct shift from the earlier one. Whereas Edna initially acknowledges her housewife identity as something useless to uphold, she now admits that getting rid of it is almost in reach.

Chopin’s symbolic use of clothing appears in a literal sense in the novel’s final scene as Edna strips away her clothes before walking into the ocean. In this final moment of liberation, Edna is able to fully remove the weight of her culture’s expectations and walk away from the woman she used to be. Her lack of clothing also creates an image of purity and rebirth which speaks to a new identity yet to be discovered. Ultimately, tracing the progression of Edna’s symbolic clothing metaphors highlights her rejection of social norms and embrace of her most authentic self.