Kate Chopin’s The Awakening illustrates Edna Pontellier’s struggle as she endures an awakening of hidden femininity and sexuality inherently repressed by the implied social constraints of the 19th century which required women to unconditionally devote their lives to their husband and children. Through a series of events influenced by the individuals around her, Edna Pontellier experiences a succession of progressive personal quests and awakenings which expose dormant emotions and passions foreshadowing her final awakening: the realization that her social freedom feels hopelessly out of reach; and as a result of this final awakening, Edna commits suicide by allowing her body to be swallowed whole by the ocean. The Awakening is deeply embedded with symbolism; from Chopin’s use of birds, houses, art, clothing, and music. Furthermore, Chopin emphasizes the use of the ocean to develop of the true depth of Edna’s awakening.
Chopin deliberately designed The Awakening on an island close to New Orleans and takes care to leave allusions of the ocean in the subconscious of the reader; she constantly refers to images of the beach, ocean, and uses words which are associated to both. Chopin carefully depicts the ocean as being a form of temptation to Edna. In Chapter VI, perhaps considered the initiation of her awakening, Edna—contemplating her decision to accompany Robert for a bath in the ocean—begins to feel an unknown light dawn within her; and simultaneously the voice of the sea seduces her: inviting her “soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude” (25). Chopin foreshadows the connection between Edna’s rebirth and the ocean in that “[t]he voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (25). Furthermore, Chopin elaborately breathes life into the ocean and from this point on the ocean becomes a symbol of birth (Edna’s first swim is a cleansing; like a baptism). In Chapter VII Chopin alludes to the ocean as a representation of freedom deeply burrowed in Edna’s subconscious. While blanketed in the shade of the porch Madame Ratignolle insisted Edna disclosed her thoughts as Edna stubbornly cast her wandering eyes about. Edna finally admits that she was dwelling on a childhood memory of herself wandering through a Kentucky bluegrass meadow that “seemed as big as the ocean” with grass “higher than her waist” beating her arms as if swimming in the ocean. It is important to observe what prompted the actual events of the memory: Edna was “running away from prayers, from the Presbyterian service” (30). Because church, to some, may represent strict social rule, perhaps Chopin is suggesting that even as a young child, Edna was in search of the freedom she so desired as an adult.
It is stated in Chapter X that Edna, with the support of men, women, and even children, had attempted to learn to swim but was discouragingly unsuccessful. Suddenly, while at the beach with company, Edna feels a burst of inner strength and decides to walk into the water and a “feeling of exultation overtook her” (47). Edna begins to feel a sense of newly conquered power; she now has experienced control over her body and mind for the first time. Swimming outward she realized the vast expanse of the ocean as she reaches out into the infinity as though to lose herself. This event can be interpreted as the moment Edna becomes conscious that something is missing from her life. She has become seduced by the inviting call of the ocean which represents a critical aspect of the story: when Edna becomes brave enough to swim where no woman had swum before and begins to realize her place in the universe.
In Chapter XXIX, Chopin brings the symbolic ocean to a final close as Edna stares into the Gulf and the “voice of the sea is seductive” excerpt is repeated verbatim from the beginning. While standing before the Gulf Edna discovers her old bathing suit hanging there, waiting for her. She adorned the old bathing suit however the garment pricked at her skin and she removed it; Edna was as naked and felt like “some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known before” (189). While walking toward her final swim, it was here that Edna has recalled the seemingly infinite bluegrass meadow from her childhood, a simpler time, before she married; before the weight of her perceived and implied constraints rested upon her.
In The Awakening, Chopin uses the ocean to represent freedom and rebirth. The expanse of the ocean is incomprehensibly vast and portrays a sensual and alluring element to Edna. In her real world Edna struggles greatly to free herself from the constraints put upon her by her social circle. Opposite of her lifestyle which constricts her ability to act as an individual and to diminish her mental and emotional capabilities, the ocean can be interpreted as an escape from the life she refuses to allow herself to lead. It is not unintentional that Edna’s suicide occurs in the same ocean that her awakening began—therefore representing freedom, life, and death. Chopin brings the story full circle and to an elegant close with Edna’s return to Grand Isle to become swallowed by the ocean; it is seductive and invites her “soul to wander in abysses of solitude” and the “touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding [her] body in its soft, close embrace” (189).