Birds as a Symbol in Chopin's The Awakening
Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening is full of symbolism: the sea, language, food, sleeping, music, and even cigars, but the first symbolism employed is that of birds. Chopin's first sentence is full of meanings that in many ways parallel the novel.
``A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over:
`Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That's all right!''' (19) This parrot and a mocking-bird, both the property of Madame Lebrun, create a backdrop for introducing Mr. Pontellier, the protagonist's husband. This sentence contains visual and aural imagery that should be analyzed. The parrot is literally a caged bird that is unable to fly because it is trapped by metal bars, but I do not think that it would be too far-fetched to say that the parrot is also Edna Pontellier who is trapped by society. Edna Pontellier is, despite all the luxuries she is afforded (for her husband is much less demanding than most), restricted because she is a woman in a male-dominated world. The bird is crying, ``Go away! Go away!'' sentiments that echo those of Edna who is looking for freedom and space. The Awakening is a novel of Edna's spiritual awakening (hence the title) and of her quest to understand who she is and to reclaim herself.
The parrot's manner of expression is to use a mixture of languages, just as the Creole culture of which Chopin writes is derived from a combination of French and American practices. The language in which he speaks is ``a language which nobody understood,'' a point which many critical readers, including Patricia Yaeger, have made sure to stress. The parrot's ideas, like Edna's, are ones that are difficult to communicate, incomprehensible to others. The only one with a remote chance of understanding the parrot is a mocking-bird (a bird that simply repeats without truly internalizing); extending this analogy, while Léonce Pontellier cannot understand his wife at all, Robert Lebrun, with whom Edna has a fling of sorts, is better equipped to understand her moods, although he as well does not fully comprehend. In the context of her society there is no way for Edna to express herself and her feelings. Her desire, her need for freedom is one for which she had no outlet.
The reader gains more insight into the importance of the parrot and the relationship between the Pontelliers by Chopin's next few lines, in which she explains that the shrieking made Mr. Pontellier uncomfortable and that he has ``privilege'' of leaving their company. The birds cannot fly away, but they can make all the noise they want, and Mr. Pontellier has no control over his situation.
The symbolism of the bird is related to that of music and the sea. Edna recalls a vision she had while listening to a song played on the piano.
The name of the piece was something else, but she called it ``Solitude.'' When she heard it there came before her imagination the figure of a man standing beside a desolate rock on the seashore. He was naked. His attitude was one of hopeless resignation as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight away from him. (44)Edna is experiencing her own solitude, and it is a feeling of bitter loneliness from which she also derives the pleasure of independence. She is resigned to her situation, knowing that birds are able to escape by flying, leaving her alone while they head toward a place to which she can only hope to follow.
After this auspicious beginning to the importance of birds, it is surprising that they are neglected for some fifty pages. Following her summer on Grande Isle where Edna has awakening experiences (listening to Mademoiselle Reisz's piano playing and learning to swim), she begins her quest to achieve self-ownership. The first stage in Edna's flight is market by her move to a new house, her own house, one that is nicknamed the ```pigeonhouse' . . . because it's so small and looks like a pigeon house'' (105). That her new home is called a pigeonhouse, a place where pigeons (birds that have adapted to and benefited from human society) are kept cooped up, is hardly a coincidence. But this new house, although it is physically smaller, is not one in which Edna will feel claustrophobic. As she explains to Mademoiselle Reisz, it is a place where she can enjoy ``the feeling of freedom and independence'' (100). It is a house in which she will only keep things that she owns ``everything which she had acquired aside from her husband's bounty'' (105); most importantly, she will be in the house and as such will have the feeling of owning herself.
Mademoiselle Reisz is one of the most important characters in The Awakening, probably second only to Edna herself. She provides music that stirs Edna's soul, letters from Robert, and advice. Edna tells her other lover Arobin that Mademoiselle Reisz ``put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. `The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth''' (103). Mademoiselle Reisz seems to be the only one who knows Edna; she knows that Edna is going to attempt flight and is not certain if she will be strong enough to succeed. Mademoiselle Reisz is in many ways omniscient, warning Edna that her flight may end in failure. Edna however tells Arobin that she is ``not thinking of any extraordinary flights [and] only half comprehend her.''
Mademoiselle Reisz sees Edna as a bird. She is a bird who is seeking to fly away from society's expectations and from her responsibilities to her children. She is a woman with a desire to escape, but she cannot soar above the ``ground of gold'' (110). Her husband and others in her society have kept her grounded by making her feel that she was not an individual but only property.
In the last scene, Chopin again draws on the imagery and symbolism of birds. Like the vision of the bird that ``Solitude'' evokes in Edna, there is ``a bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water'' (136). She is naked, and with ambivalent feelings of the triumph of flight and ``hopeless resignation.'' Paula Treichler sees the Edna's first swim as one that ``promised a metaphorical fulfillment'' or awakening and her final (suicidal) swim as one of disappointment and death. The bird with a broken wing embodies Edna's disillusionment as she learns that her ideals are not reality. This is Chopin's final ironic gesture, that a bird that should endowed with the gift of flight is unable to escape. Edna's flight will not be one of soaring heights but a solitary flight that never really leaves the ground yet still has a crash landing.
The ending of Chopin's The Awakening is open to many interpretations. Edna's suicide can be viewed as an awakening or as a failure. The symbolism of the bird offers a slightly different alternative: as a bird with a broken wing, Edna is a victim of fate and her society. Edna's wings are not strong enough to overcome gravity; she is weighted down by the forces that society imposes upon her. Edna takes a chance and tries to escape from ``the level plain of tradition.'' She is able to escape, but only in death, only by drowning ``down, down to the water.''