The sea as major symbol in ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin

In The Awakening, Kate Chopin guides the reader through a progressive and evolving story about a woman who is on a quest for personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Throughout the story, Kate Chopin enriches her narrative by the use of metaphoric symbols.  According to Donald Ringe, “In The Awakening, the sea serves precisely this purpose, for it is in the Gulf that Edna experiences the crisis that determines her development throughout the rest of the book” (Ringe 223).    In the same vein, John May points out that, “it is the personification of the sea, though, that dominates all the imagery. The sea is undoubtedly the central symbol of the novel; like all natural symbols it is basically ambiguous” (May 212).  Obviously, Kate Chopin uses the sea as the main setting of the plot in order to illustrate Edna’s journey from her awakening to her death and also to underline the themes portrayed in the story.

The feminist author and historian of American culture,  Tiffany K. Wayne

notes that, “throughout the nineteenth century, most American women expected to marry and to have children…Rural, frontier, and Southern women tended to marry earlier and have more children…” (Wayne 2). In fact, the social conventions of the nineteenth-century era attribute only two roles to women: motherhood and marriage. The American society of that time is guided by the patriarchal pattern, where the roles of men and women are strictly codified.  Throughout her narrative, Kate Chopin is highly concerned with the question of the struggle of Edna to escape the patrifocal society of the New Orleans.  Since her young age, Edna has developed solid beliefs against patriarchal conventions which she considers as heavy and worthless. “Even as a child, she had lived her own small life all within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life—that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions” (14).   In a society marked with severe restriction towards women, is there a place that could be a haven of peace and freedom for women?                                                                                  Kate Chopin does not set the beginning of Edna’s “awakening” story on the resort of Grand Island, surrounded by the sea by accident.  In her critical essay, Sandra Gilbert points out, “For Chopin’s Aphrodite, like Hesiod’s, is born from the sea, and born specifically because the colony where she comes to consciousness is situated, like so many places that are significant for women, outside patriarchal culture, beyond the limits of the city where men make history, on one of those magical shores that mark the margin where nature intersect with culture” (Gilbert 272).   It appears clearly that Sandra Gilbert makes a distinction between the matrifocal world of Grand Isle, with its contiguity to nature epitomized by the sea and the patrifocal world of New Orleans, where life revolves around the men, their professions, and their fortunes.   Kate Chopin uses the sea as the spatial setting because of its common trope for mother, and maternal. Also, the comparison of Edna to Aphrodite by Gilbert prefigures Edna’s mutation into a new oceanic creature.

Kate Chopin uses the sentiment’s Edna has toward the presence of the sea to contrast the sentiment of despair she has toward her family life.  In the first chapter of the story, Chopin writes, “her glance wandered from his face away toward the Gulf, whose sonorous murmur reached her like a loving but imperative entreaty” (13).    The “murmur” is recounted as “sonorous”, revealing that, even if the voice is not obvious, its strength is strong.                                                                                                                                           By using “imperative entreaty”, Chopin does not explain further what the sea is asking Edna to do.  We can conclude that the message Edna is receiving from the sea is unclear. However, the message is strong and “it served but to bewilder her” (13).                               Later on, the sea seems to give form to Edna ’s thoughts and feelings.   Chopin reveals, that  “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in the abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (14).   At this time, Kate Chopin does not use the name of Edna in her narrative.  Instead, she refers to Edna by using “soul” and “body”.   Chopin’s intention is to show the power of the sea, as it is capable of exerting its control and to seduce at the same time Edna’s soul and her body.   It appears here that Chopin uses the sea as a metaphoric representation of temptation.  In addition, Chopin carefully uses words with feminine connotation such as such as “seductive”, “murmuring”, “soft”, and “sensuous” in order to describe the sea. This, along with the images that it provides with “abysses of solitude” and “enfolding the body”, and  the water of the ocean, is an allusion to the womb.  Chopin wants to show how returning to the ocean is like returning to the very basic identity of a person. So not only is the sea’s power a metaphor for the power that Edna’s revelation has over her, the sea also indicates the elemental nature of the revelation by simultaneously referring back to the womb.

Edna takes the first step of her self-awakening when she decides to learn how to swim.  For Edna’s first experience in the water, “a certain ungovernable dread hung about her when in the water…But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with overconfidence” (27). For the first time in her life, Edna is able to prevail over her fear and “a feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul” (27). Edna’s soul is filled with courage and her body with power.  Edna is now aware that she could set herself free of the limitations in her existence and grow as an individual.  As Edna starts to swim away from the shore and looks back to all the people she left behind, she acknowledges that she cannot go further because there is “a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome” (28). When she thinks about the barrier, Edna acknowledges the difficulty of fighting all the restrictions in society and also to liberate herself from her obligations towards her family. However, it is obvious that Edna begins the process of her self-exploration. Edna starts to take control over her body by acquiring the skill of swimming.  Edna is “intoxicated with her newly conquered power” (27). According to Rebecca Long- Kluckner, “the sea is the most significant symbol of empowerment in the novel” (48).  Edna’s new swimming skills and the sea are used to symbolize Edna’s quest for her freedom. However, Chopin indicates that Edna´s self-exploration interrupts as “a quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses” (48).

In the story, Kate Chopin uses the clothing as an important metaphor.  Like their own life, Victorian women’s clothing is marked by an extreme confinement.  As Chopin describes in her narratives, Edna, unlike Adele, “wore a cool muslin that morning … a white linen collar and a big straw hat” (15).  Edna’s unusual dress shows that she does not want to conform to her society standards.   The most obvious symbolism of clothing appears at the end of the novel when Edna takes off her clothing before getting into the sea. Edna is  “there beside the sea, absolutely alone, she cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life stood naked in the open air” (108).  By removing her clothing, Edna removes her last restrictions before attaining her entire freedom.  As she enters in the sea,  “the touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (109).    By bathing naked in the sea, Edna is able to cast off the last of her old self and being reborn as “the second coming Aphrodite” (Gilbert 272).

By describing the  voice of the sea as “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” (14), Kate Chopin does not only refers to the sea, but also to nature.  Through her first encounter with the sea, Edna tries to listen to the confidence of nature. Edna examines her new shared knowledge with the sea. However, Edna does not acknowledge that “freedom at sea also bears with it the danger of a bewildering sense of being lost, of drifting aimlessly” (Radcliff-Umstead 228).   Walter Taylor uses Freud’s psychoanalytic theory to explain that Edna who grows up under the autocratic regime of her widower father is “fixed in her longing for and symbolic search for reunion with the lost mother” (Taylor 209).  As an illustration “various psychoanalytic schools concur in recognizing the ocean as a maternal symbol” (Ryan 48). Therefore, Edna’s journey to her “awakening” could not have other destination than Mother Nature.  Also, the “womb-like embrace of the sea” (Bogard 108), is a metaphor which represents Edna’s rebirth.  In her narrative, Chopin uses the sea to represent Edna’s death but also her rebirth.

In the awakening, Edna acknowledges her own strength. She fights the social conventions and she is looking for a new identity.Yet in the final pages, Mrs. Chopin asks her reader to believe in an Edna who is completely defeated by the loss of Robert, to believe in the paradox of a woman who has awakened to passional life and yet quietly, almost thoughtlessly, chooses death (Spangler 209).   Chopin’s intention is to unveil to the reader all of the socially prescribed roles that society creates and adheres to were not acceptable for Edna; she was simply unable to conform and fit completely or correctly into any one of the many given roles in this novel. Edna decides to take the final dive, to free herself from all the constraints and to attain her true awakening.   The sea does not serve only as a representation of Edna’s self-awakening, but also as the fusion of freedom and death. In Edna’s quest for freedom, the sea plays the ultimate role because Edna realizes that the only way to achieve freedom is through death in the sea. The full symbolism of The Awakening is complex. However, John May admits that “Chopin proves herself at all times to be the master of it. Supporting the rhythmic movement of the narrative from Grand Isle to the Creole quarter of New Orleans and back to Grand Isle are the basic symbols of sea and city” (May 212).




Works cited

Bogard, Carley Rees. “‘The Awakening’: A Refusal to Compromise.” The University of Michigan Papers in Women’s Studies 2.3 (1977): 15-31. Rpt. in World Literature Criticism Supplement 1. Rpt. in World Literature Criticism, Supplement 1-2: A Selection of Major Authors from Gale’s Literary Criticism Series. Ed. Polly Vedder. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1997. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Feb. 2010.

Chopin, Kate, and Margo Culley. The Awakening: An Authoritative Text, Biographical and

              Historical   Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. Print.

Long- Kluckner, Rebecca. “Chopin’s Awakening of Female Sexuality in ‘The Storm’

“Association of Young Journalists and Writers 2003-2009, n. d. Web. 15 Apr. 2012.

Radcliff-Umstead, Douglas. “Literature of Deliverance: Images of Nature in The Awakening.”

Southern Studies 1.2 (Summer 1990): 127-147. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary

Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 127. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center.

Web. 26 Feb. 2010.

Ryan, Steven T. “Depression and Chopin’s ‘The Awakening.’ (Kate Chopin).” The Mississippi

Quarterly 51.2 (1998): 253+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Feb. 2010.

Taylor, Walter, and Jo Ann B. Fineman. “Kate Chopin: Pre-Freudian Freudian.” Southern Literary Journal 29.1 (Fall 1996): 35-45. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 127. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Feb. 2010.

Wayne, Tiffany K. Women´s Roles in the Nineteenth Century America. Westport:

GreenWood Press. 2007. Print.

Alexandre Koffi

Entrepreneur, space enthusiast, dreamer, cosmic messenger.

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