Throughout The Awakening, Kate Chopin conveys her ideas by using carefully crafted symbols that reflect her characters’ thoughts and futures. One of the most important of these symbols, the bird, appears constantly, interwoven in the story to provide an insight to the condition of Edna’s and her struggle. At each of the three stages of her struggle, birds foreshadow her actions and emphasize the actions’ importance while the birds’ physical state provides an accurate measure of that of Edna’s.
Early in the novel, while Edna attempts to escape from society’s strong grasp, birds emphasize her entanglement by forecasting her actions and monitor her development by reflecting her feelings. The novel opens with the image of a bird, trapped and unable to communicate: “a green and yellow parrot, which hung in the cage outside the door…could speak a little Spanish, and also a language that nobody understood” (1). Like the bird, Edna feels trapped and believes that society has imprisoned her. Her marriage to Mr. Pontellier suffocates her and keeps her from being free. At the same time, she remains shut apart from society like the bird in the cage, and different ideas and feelings prevent her from communicating. The only person in society that begins to understand her, Robert, eventually decides that he must remain a member of society instead of staying with her. He says that “you [Edna] were not free; you were Leonce Pontellier’s wife” and that “[Robert] was demented, dreaming of wild, impossible things…[such as] men who had set their wives free” (108). Robert does not want to do something wild and unacceptable to society. In a situation parallel to that of Edna’s, the only bird that understands the parrot is the mockingbird (Reisz) that “[is] whistling its fluty notes upon the breeze with maddening persistence” (1). Because the parrot continues to shriek, people move it away from their society: “[Mr. Farvial] insisted upon having the bird removed and consigned to regions of darkness” (23). Society wants to hide the bird in darkness, as it wants to do to Edna, in order to keep the bird from causing problems. The bird, like Edna, is the only one “who possessed sufficient candor” to tell the truth about society (23). Throughout Edna’s imprisonment, birds reflect her actions and feelings.
Once Edna begins to escape, however, the birds become important signs of her success in escaping and continue to foreshadow her actions. Upon hearing Mademoiselle Reisz play “Solitude”, Edna envisions a free bird for the first time.She imagines “a man standing beside a desolate rock…with hopeless resignation as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight away from him” (25). The appearance of a free bird provides an important sign of Edna’s beginning freedom and success. Also, the bird leaves a hopeless and resigned man as Edna leaves Mr. Pontellier. While Edna relates her love story to Mr. Pontellier and Doctor Mendelet, she begins to show her feeling of freedom by using a rising bird.She speaks of two lovers who could feel “the beating of the birds’ wings, rising startled from among the reeds in the salt-water pools” (36). Like the bird, Edna begins to rise and break away from the chains of society. The bird’s strength symbolizes the fact that Edna is succeeding in escaping and progressing toward happiness. Later, when Mademoiselle Reisz tells Edna that “the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings,” she uses birds to forecast Edna’s future and evaluate Edna’s strength (83). In order to soar like a bird, Edna must be strong, and Mademoiselle Reisz realizes that she is not.Reisz says, “it is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth” (83). Mademoiselle Reisz understands that Edna cannot fight society and uses birds to demonstrate this knowledge. Finally, Edna moves to what she calls her exhausted “pigeon house.” The name that Edna chooses for this house implies the defeat of a bird that, in turn, implies the defeat of Edna. During Edna’s escape, birds gauge her success and continue to mirror her actions.
Later, when Edna realizes the hopelessness of her situation, birds act as clear indicators of Edna’s success in freeing herself and foreshadow her fate. Upon reaching the beach, Edna looks around and sees a sign of what is to become of her: “a bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water” (115). The bird is a final omen that reflects Mademoiselle Reisz’s words: “it is sad to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth” (83). Disabled and weakened because of its broken wing, it falls back to earth and suffers defeat. Edna soon does the same when she kills herself because she does not possess “the courageous soul that dares and defies” (116).
Though at times the symbol is over-used and obvious, birds plays the two important roles of foreshadowing Edna’s future and gauging her success. While in the beginning, they mirror her actions and depict her feelings, in the end, they show her failure in escaping from society.