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The Awakening | Study Guide

Kate Chopin

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The Awakening | Symbols



The moon is a traditional symbol of femininity because of its connection to the sea, the tides, and the menstrual cycle, and it carries those connotations in the novel. The narrator refers to a "mystic moon," and Robert tells Edna Pontellier the moon must be shining or the spirit that haunts the Gulf will not appear. The moon is also associated with nighttime, and its light shines on many of Edna's most intensely emotional moments. For example, on the night Edna learns to swim, the "white light of the moon had fallen upon the world like the mystery and the softness of sleep."


In The Awakening captive birds symbolize women, caged and broken by the limitations society places on them. The opening image of the novel is of two caged birds: a parrot and a mockingbird. Later in the novel Mademoiselle Reisz tells Edna Pontellier that she will need strong wings to fly if she is committed to defying traditional women's roles. In addition Edna moves from her grand home to a smaller "pigeon house." The smaller house gives her a kind of freedom, but it represents the way her unconventional choices remove freedom, binding her into a smaller and smaller space. The novel's final image also includes a bird. This bird has a broken wing, and it circles above as Edna gives up her own life. If Mademoiselle Reisz's opinion is true, Edna's wings were not strong enough to withstand society's pressures.


Like the moon whose tides it controls, the sea is a powerful image in The Awakening. The sea's sensuality represents Edna Pontellier's awakening to her independent and sexual self: "the touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace." Its voice calls to Edna with an unceasing whispering that "speaks to the soul." The sea also represents freedom. In the sea Edna learns to swim independently, an important milestone in her move toward liberation. But she also learns of the dangers posed by swimming too far out; the downside of freedom is risk. As a spiritual metaphor, the sea represents birth and rebirth, the emergence of life from the primordial ocean. On all these levels the sea has a powerful draw for Edna. She looks out at it often and ultimately ends her life in it.


The Awakening spends an unusual amount of time on Edna Pontellier's sleeping habits, but not without reason: these details are important to developing the titular theme of spiritual awakening. In many cases a period of sleep followed by waking leads to an instance of mental or emotional awakening. For example, when Edna's husband comes in late and wakes her, she cannot go back to sleep and is overcome with a sense of "indescribable oppression" as she considers how her husband relates to her. The physical awakening is a precursor to the realization she is unhappy with her marriage and her role as wife and mother.

Questions for Symbols

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