Kate Chopin consistently uses avian symbolism in the novel The Awakening to represent and Enlighten Edna Pontellier. She begins the novel with the image of a caged bird and throughout the story other birds and avian images appear representing freedom, failure, and choices that Edna, the storys main character, must make. Throughout The Awakening Chopin uses flight and descriptions of birds to express the psychological state of mind of her main character, Edna Pontellier. As the story begins we are immediately introduces to the importance of avian symbolism.
The first spoken sentences of the novel, are curiously enough, squawked by a parrot rather than a main character or some other human. “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! Thats all right! ” (Chopin 3) are the words yelled by this crazed, caged bird. “Go away! Go away! For heavens sake! ” is the translation of this message into English. This message represents the forbidden and taboo thoughts racing through the mind of Edna Pontellier during her post-awakening period. Edna longs to leave her subservient role as the loving, submissive wife and mother that society forces on her.
She longs for something more exciting, something of her own choosing and free will. These lines are echoed again immediately prior to her awakening. While the twins are once again playing the same songs on the piano the parrot shrieks, Allez vous-en! Sapristi!. This is the final warning that the parrot relays to Edna. Edna should have listened to the parrots message and escaped from her unsatisfying life immediately. Yet, she chose not to heed his warning and she was destined to end her life in order to be free. In addition to the parrots message, the image of this hostile, shrieking bird is a symbol in and of itself.
For like the parrot, Edna is also trapped, not behind the bars of a cage, but by the standards of society and the role that has been appointed to her as a woman. In the same way that the parrot cannot free himself of his cage, Edna cannot ever fully break free of the limitations that society has placed on her as a woman, wife, and mother. Although she makes a conscious effort to separate herself from the people who are holding her back and break free of the boundaries that society has set upon her, she can never fully succeed in satisfying her hunger to live her own life.
The next example of the avian imagery in The Awakening comes in the form of a handsome, young charmer named Alcee Arobin. Although on first glance he does not seem to be of or related to birds, upon closer examination we see that his last name syllabicated slowly is pronounced “a – robin”. This bird, the harbinger of spring, is able to fly freely and live in close proximity to humans. Arobin matches this description, for he, as his name implies, flies freely through society and as his reputation suggests becomes close with many women.
Admittedly, with”… ingenuous frankness he spoke of what a wicked, undisciplined boy he had been. ” (78) and to Edna he, “talked in a way that astonished her at first and brought crimson to her face” (80). Furthermore, he has no regrets or worries when he pursues a relationship with Edna, a married woman. Alcee Arobin is a man who soars through life with no cares at all. He is known for his pursuits with women and is very straightforward when trying to get what he wants. Clearly he disregards the restrictions and rules that society has set up.
Edna sees these qualities as admirable and longs to have them so that she too will be able to fly freely through life without restrictions and a cage to lock her up inside. The advice, given to Edna by the mysterious Mademoiselle Reisz also falls into the pattern of avian imagery to represent a deeper meaning for the novels main character, Edna Pontellier. Mademoiselle Reisz says that, “The bird that would soar above the level of plain tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth” (85).
Though Edna does never really understands the message behind Mademoiselle Reiszs warning, the reader realizes that if Edna is determined to break through the stereotype of the submissive, little woman of her time, and to break free as herself in society, she must have strength in order to succeed. When Edna attempts to gain her freedom she moves into a little house around the corner from her larger more luxurious house in which she is trapped by her family and the standards that have been set upon her by the society around her. Not coincidentally she names the house the pigeon house. Edna felt that,
The pigeon house pleased her. It at once assumed the intimate character of a home, while she herself invested it with a charm, which it reflected like a warm glow. There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual. Every step which she took toward relieving herself from the obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual. She began to look with her own eyes; to see and to apprehend the deeper undercurrents of life. No longer was she content to feed upon opinion when her own soul had invited her.
This house was the large step that she took toward self-fulfillment and happiness. It seemed to be the only thing that was every truly her own. Once again the image of birds is used to free her and to represent her passage into a new life. At the tragic conclusion the presence of birds are once again very apparent. Prior to Ednas suicide, she notices that, “a bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water” (116). The wounded bird being injured and weak plunges into the water symbolizing Ednas failure to escape the boundaries and limitations in her role as a woman.
Edna soon follows the bird into the depths of the ocean, ending her life and freeing herself of the madness that was surrounding her. Thus, with consistent references to birds and flight, Kate Chopins trapped character meets her destiny While she is unable to heed the advice of the parrot, not ready to follow the loveless, amoral path of Arobin and the men that she is sure will follow him, and only half-understanding the message of Mademoiselle Reisz, in her death she finally becomes a free woman. As she waded into the cold ocean water at the novels end, Edna Pontellier was “flying free” to her death.