The Use of Birds as Symbols in The Awakening
by Lori Dorrin

The Awakening by Kate Chopin is a truly enlightening novel about a young woman who begins to really live her life for herself, breaking out of the various barriers of society and family. Chopin uses symbolism as an excellent tool to slip her ideas to readers, causing them to think, giving readers a glimpse into the life of this young woman at a time when women were harnessed by many restraints. The birds that appear throughout the novel are the most intriguing symbols; they are used many different ways, to mean many different things, and to portray various emotions and situations.

As the novel begins, Chopin likens Edna to a bird in a gilded cage. Edna is not free, but that is okay because she has not yet begun to see what life has to offer; she has not yet begun to awaken. Through Edna’s desire for Robert, she begins to realize that she is like the bird in the cage, not wanting for anything materially but still trapped. Edna cannot fly away to freedom; she is tied by social constraints and especially by her family. Chopin helps the reader to understand fully the pressure society and family have put upon Edna, causing her to feel she will never be able to fly away to freedom.

Edna is not a particularly motherly woman, unlike most women of her social circles. She certainly does not measure up to her husband’s idea of a good mother, and in the beginning pages of the novel, he criticizes her. “He reproached his wife with her inattentions, her habitual neglect of the children” (637). Edna certainly does not fit in with the “mother-woman” role the other women of her acquaintance are astute in assuming, but she feels she has taught her boys to be strong and does not feel the need to hover around them. The use of birds is slipped in here also. The women of Grand Isle are “fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood” (638). While Edna does not hate her children, she comes to realize the extent that they tie her down, and she feels that she has given up her life for them.

As the novel progresses, Edna realizes she has friends who at times know her better than herself and are always willing to give advice.  Mademoiselle Reisz realizes Edna’s struggle but is very careful while conversing to Edna about her knowledge of the situation. She believes Edna is strong and tells her she must be like a bird; she [Mademoiselle Reisz] “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” (698).  If Edna is to defy her society and deny her family, she must be strong, and she must not care what anyone else thinks if she is going to make herself happy. 

Unfortunately, it seems that Edna is not as strong as Mademoiselle Reisz thinks, or maybe it is that she is stronger. When Edna realizes that Robert loves her but is too frightened to be with her, she cannot take the pain and sorrow she feels. She has been awakened to see what her life has become: an empty shell. As Edna goes back to the place where she had begun her awakening, she walks to the beach and sees a bird who is hurt. “A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water”, and Edna has become like this bird; her heart is broken and soul discouraged as she realizes she will never fully discover love and life (722). Edna sees death as her real freedom, her final awakening, and while it seems like the cowardly way out, it has to take courage to end life. Edna chooses death over a life she cannot fully live. 

Work Cited

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 6th ed. Vol. C. New York: Norton, 2003.