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The Awakening is loaded with symbolism. The bird metaphor-- from the cawing, impatient parrot at the beginning, to the damaged seabird at the end--is full of allusions to the female condition, as well as to that of the artist. Obviously, Edna is at first a caged bird, a fancy pet, and then she becomes a damaged but wild bird at the end, when she plunges into the sea.
The Kentucky field of Edna's youth is symbolic of endless possibilities. These are transferred to the sea, and to death, by the end. When Edna learns to swim, in the beginning of the novel, the reader understands that she has at least the rudimentary ability to strike out in the water, into life, although she is terribly inexperienced. The water also represents sensual feeling, into which she "falls asleep." She always sleeps after Alcée awakens her sexually. And her ultimate sleep takes place the sea.
The themes of "beauty" and "brutality" are always side by side in this novel. Each example of beauty (Mademoiselle's piano playing, for instance) is accompanied by brutality (Mademoiselle's sick interest in Edna's personal drama). It is the same with marriage, the idea of loving possession, childbirth, and money. Edna's dinner party is beautiful, but it ends on a brutal note, during which Edna becomes nearly violent. The very idea of life, to Edna, is both beautiful and brutal, and in the end she cannot live with the paradox.
Edna is never quite the artist. At least, she cannot fulfill Mademoiselle Reisz's idea of the artistic temperament. She is not strong enough, or daring enough. Chopin does not represent Edna's art as being very central to her existence, which suggests that Edna lacks creativity or ambition. Most of Edna's pieces are portraits, and none of them are terribly successful, or else they are incomplete. This fits with the idea of Edna being unable to create herself. In general, Edna seems to refuse the cult of art, just as she has refused societal convention.
Chopin, in this book, goes beyond the ordinary to find a wealth of motivations and outcomes. No wonder her book was disparaged in its time: no one wanted to think that privilege and femininity could lead to such complications. This is precisely why The Awakening is such a twentieth-century book: Chopin addresses issues that were festering in her own time but that are played out more fully in the present time.