The Awakening\'s Symbolic Significance Of The Sea

In the novel, “The Awakening,” Kate Chopin tells the story of a young married woman,
Edna Pontellier, who, while enjoying her summer holidays at a cottage on a beach with her
family, meets a young man by the name of Robert Lebrun. Edna, who is not really in love with
her husband, begins to have mixed feelings and, as a result, begins to realize who she truly is.
Edna feels that something is lacking in her life. The author uses the ocean to personify and
symbolize what is missing in Edna’s life--the love of a man and freedom of the soul.
On several occasions Chopin uses the sea as a personification of Edna’s longing for the
love of a man. Although Edna is married, she does not have the feelings for her husband which
coincide with being in love. In one example, Chopin describes the sea: “The voice of the sea is
seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a
spell in abysses of solitude, to lose itself in mazes of contemplation” (13). The sea calls to Edna:
“The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in
its soft , close embrace” (13). Chopin is describing the sea as though it was a man with whom
Edna is in love and for whom she feels a strong attraction, not just someone she can make love
to but someone she can loose herself in. Later, the young man, Robert Lebrun, who is stirring up
all these feelings in Edna, asks her if she is going swimming; she answers him no and tells him
she is too tired. Chopin describes Edna’s actions afterwards: “Her glance wandered from his
face away toward the Gulf, whose sonorous murmur reached her like a loving but imperative
entreaty” (12). Chopin is projecting Edna’s feelings for Robert, whether Edna is conscious of
these feelings or not, onto the sea because a part of Edna does want to go swimming with him.
Edna also has a strong need for freedom and Chopin, with respect to Edna’s character,
makes reference to the sea to express this need. On one occasion, Edna and Madame Ratignolle,
her neighbour for the summer, are sunbathing on the beach. Madame asks Edna to where her
mind is wandering. Edna tells her the ocean is bringing back a memory of a field in Kentucky
which, as a child, she had run through with arms stretched out in the breeze as though swimming
in the ocean, a symbol of the freedom she felt as a small child, a freedom which has left her as
she has grown older. Edna exclaims, “sometimes I feel this summer as if I were walking
through the green meadow again; idly, aimlessly unthinking and unguided” (16). Edna is
expressing her desire to once again be able to do such things, to make decisions without really
having to make any conscious choices, for her soul to have that freedom.
After receiving lessons for some time, Edna gains a little personal freedom by learning to
swim. Chopin goes on to describe the achievement: “But that night she was like the little
tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its power, and walks for the first
time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for
joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water” (34). It is
as though the sea is surrendering a little freedom to her by allowing her this victory. One day,
Edna is crossing the bay with others on their way to church. Chopin describes Edna’s feelings of
freedom on the short voyage: “Sailing across the bay to the Cheniere Caminada, Edna felt as if
she were being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains had
been loosening, . . . leaving her free to drift whithersoever she chose to set her sails” (34).
Chopin’s description of the voyage once again paints a picture of Edna’s longing to be free.
Chopin uses the sea numerous times throughout the story to express the young Edna’s
feelings. From giving it human qualities with its power to seduce, to speak to the soul and to
hold her in a close embrace, Chopin quite effectively projects Edna’s growing feelings for
Robert. Chopin also