The Awakening

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The Sea Symbol Analysis

The Sea Symbol Icon
Such freedom comes with a price, however. The novel’s birds symbolize both the joys of freedom and its potential dangers. As she listens to Mademoiselle Reisz’s music, Edna imagines a man watching a bird flying into the distance. Later, Edna’s story about illicit love makes her listeners hear the romantic rustling of birds in the dark. In both instances, birds are markers of forbidden desire. And as the book draws to its conclusion, birds become warning signs. Edna watches a bird with a broken wing float down to the ocean in the moments before she drowns.

The Sea Quotes in The Awakening

The The Awakening quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Sea. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Convention and Individuality Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of The Awakening published in 1993.
Chapter 10 Quotes

A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier
Related Symbols: The Sea
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

For her entire summer on the island, Edna has been attempting to learn to swim, and to conquer her fear of the ocean. At last, she succeeds—and as she does so, she suddenly feels "exultation." Glorying in her own independence and power, she becomes "daring," wanting to "swim far out" despite the fact that she has never swum before in her life.

So confined and constrained is Edna that even this small moment of freedom—being able to swim by herself—is intoxicating, making her feel invincible and powerful. She has lived such a dependent and suffocating life that something as simple as being able to propel herself through the water takes on a revelatory quality.

In this passage, the narrator makes clear both the necessity and the danger of such freedom. While Edna is abruptly happier than she has ever been, she is in no way used to these feelings, or to making decisions for herself. Instead, she becomes "reckless," completely unused to being able to make her own decisions, or determine her own future. 

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Chapter 39 Quotes

There was no one thing in the world that she desired. There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone. The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier, Robert Lebrun, Etienne and Raoul Pontellier
Related Symbols: The Sea
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

Despairing and alone, abandoned by Robert and unwilling to return to her family, Edna swims out to sea, where she will soon die. As she comes to her decision, she thinks about Robert—her final link to the world—and realizes that one day she will forget even him. Remembering her children and her love for them, she realizes that returning to them would "drag" her back into a "slavery" to them.

At this moment, Edna truly believes that she has no remaining human connections, and no other choice. She does not love her husband; the man she loves has left her; and although she loves her children, resuming her role as a mother would mean erasing the new self that she has found. Confronted with either eternal emptiness or unending obligation, Edna instead chooses the ultimate freedom: death. In so doing, she will escape the aimless, free life that she has led, while also "elud[ing]" a life spent in devotion to others. 

By presenting these equally hopeless options, the narrator makes clear how the society in which Edna exists has, essentially, killed her. It has made her equally unable to be free and to be tethered. Detached as she is from humanity, and empty as her life is without her lover or her children, she has no other option but to die. 

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The Sea Symbol Timeline in The Awakening

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Sea appears in The Awakening. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 10
Convention and Individuality Theme Icon
Freedom and Emptiness Theme Icon
...been spending as much time with her as usual. Edna had never been able to swim, and Robert had tried all summer to teach her; but she was always strangely afraid... (full context)
Chapter 16
Women’s Rights, Femininity, and Motherhood Theme Icon
Realism and Romanticism Theme Icon
Freedom and Emptiness Theme Icon
...thinks of him all the time, and feels disinterested in the life around her. She swims often and visits Madame Lebrun, who talks to her about Robert and shows her Robert’s... (full context)
Freedom and Emptiness Theme Icon
...remembers that the two brothers quarreled over the girl named Mariequita. Edna grows sad and swims for a long time. Back on shore, Mlle Reisz invites Edna to come visit her... (full context)
Chapter 23
Realism and Romanticism Theme Icon
Action and Reflection Theme Icon
Freedom and Emptiness Theme Icon
...her husband, and Edna makes up a story about two lovers that got lost at sea. The doctor assumes Edna is in love with another man. (full context)
Chapter 39
Convention and Individuality Theme Icon
Freedom and Emptiness Theme Icon
...a visit, and asks if she could have a room in the house and a seat at dinner. First, though, she wants to go for a swim. (full context)
Convention and Individuality Theme Icon
Women’s Rights, Femininity, and Motherhood Theme Icon
Freedom and Emptiness Theme Icon
...her soul into love, but she doesn’t want to sacrifice her soul to them. The sea in front of her is inviting and solitary, and a bird with a broken wing... (full context)
Convention and Individuality Theme Icon
Freedom and Emptiness Theme Icon
...open for the first time. She loves the free feeling. She walks into the cold water and swims farther and farther out. She becomes very tired, then afraid for a moment,... (full context)