In the book The Awakening, the author Kate Chopin utilizes compelling symbolism to portray the protagonist’s, Edna Pontellier’s, longing for passion and escape from the confines of marriage. In the late 19th century of New Orleans, Edna is unlike other women in the sense that the marital and maternal life doesn’t appeal to her. As a woman plagued by the desires for freedom, she realizes her inevitable limitations in life, and ultimately defies Victorian societal expectations of her domestic female role.
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As Edna begins to stray from her assigned duties as a wife, mother, and the conventions of Victorian society, she feels as though the ocean invites her soul to wander, spurring determination within her to be free; adrift and anchorless in the running sea. In an age anchored by stress and personal anxiety, the ocean acts as a symbol for freedom and rebirth. This recurring symbol throughout the text emphasizes Edna’s detachment from the social norm of the times as well as emancipation from tradition and prejudice, guiding her awakening to passion, and the pitfalls that come with it.
In The Awakening, the sea reflects and advances Edna’s rebirth, and her growing sense of her individuality. The connection between Edna and the ocean is complex, sensual, and deep, as the voice of the sea pulls her towards it with its promises of freedom. Edna Pontellier, a young woman who is married to Leonce Pontellier, a successful New Orleans businessman, with two young sons during the Victorian era of 1899, seems to find herself in a semi-conscious state, completely separated from reality.
She is comfortable in her marriage, but desperately longs for passion and excitement. In a conversation between Edna and her friend Adele Ratignolle, the epitome of 19th century womanhood, Edna recalls an incident of running through a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than her waist (Chopin 194). Chopin’s allusion to the ocean emphasizes the voice of the sea which pulls at her with reminiscence of her childhood. A time in her life where she was just following a misleading impulse without question, a time where she was not yet obstructed by societal norms and just followed her desires spontaneously (Chopin 195). During this particular conversation, for the first time Edna began contemplating the reason behind her misery. She lives a comfortable life with her husband and children, but the thought of them lacks the feelings of pleasure and love that she should have for them. She believes that it’s her female duties that are holding her back, preventing her from running across the wide expanse of grass. Edna admits that it was this summer where she felt as if she were walking through the meadow again, unthinking and unguiding, as the sea urges her to only seek out her aspirations in life. When Edna takes a dip in the ocean for the first time and learns how to swim. A feeling of exultation overtook her. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman has swum before (212.) She is so confident in her swimming abilities and bathes gayly in everyone’s admiration and applause, until she feels as though she swam too far. At this point she becomes aware of the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome (213.) Her sudden doubt in her abilities represents her fear of the unlimited freedom she wants so desperately, having to shed everything she has in her quest for selfhood.
The ocean acts as a key symbol guiding her awakening to passion as well as an awakening to unfamiliar pain that comes with it. Her emancipation from the societal norms of her domestic female role allows her to really feel alive, ridding herself of the dream like state of reality she has become so accustomed to living; however, in the pursuit of love and passion, she is introduced to the rollercoaster of emotions that come hand in hand with it. Edna persistently connects the ocean with a certain personal free will drawing her towards freedom, whilst encountering staggering difficulties sparked by societal expectations of victorian life for women. The voice of the sea is 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 (190.) Chopin demonstrates the oceans invitation to her soul, to wander anchorless in the running sea. As Edna lies tearstruck in the shadowy anguish of the night, the mist is lifted from her eyes, enabling her to comprehend the significance of life. The ocean is the setting for Edna’s midnight thoughts since its where she first establishes her sense of self-ownership. In control of her body, she becomes aware of its potential for pleasure and learns to claim her right to self determination.
Chopin uses symbolism in The Awakening to explore the independence of womanhood in Edna. Seeing as she can no longer survive merely as a wife and a mother, confined to the unspoken laws of Victorian society, she decides to take matters into her hands. Towards the end of the novel as the depart of her lover, Robert, melts her out of existence, she is urged towards the waves that invited her. How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! How delicious! She felt like some new born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.(350.) Seeing as if she had already lost everything, Edna gives in to her longing for freedom, abandoning the life she had known. She stands naked in the open air, letting the sensuous sea enfold her body in a close embrace as she swims out to sea. She thinks of all the people that her life consisted of as she swims out into the ocean and states that the artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies Edna defied all the cultural assumptions of the women of the late-nineteenth century and drowned in the depths of the sea as exhaustion took over her. In the process of removing her clothes and taking her life, she stripped herself of every last thing placing limitations on her life. Death represents the only aspect of her life that she can take complete control over. The ocean is Edna’s final escape from society.