Early on in the novel after Edna and Robert return from the beach, Mr. Pontellier remarks on Edna’s appearance. The book uses a smile to describe the way he looks at Edna:
'You are burnt beyond recognition,' he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.
In comparing a sunburnt Edna to damaged property, the novel suggests that in Mr. Pontellier's view, Edna has become “tainted” in some way. He seems to objectify her and value her beauty above all else, as he's more worried about how she looks than about her serious (and likely painful) sunburn. This reflects not only Mr. Pontellier's opinion but also society’s ideas about women at the time. Women were largely expected to be prim, docile, and obedient. They had few rights and were often seen as men's property. Mr. Pontellier seems to fall in line with this view, which contrasts with Edna's relationship with Robert—a friendship in which they are more or less equals.
On a warm day on Grand Isle, Edna expresses her inner emotions to her friend Adèle Ratignolle, and the novel uses a simile to describe how this interaction makes her feel:
[...] flushed and intoxicated with the sound of her own voice and the unaccustomed taste of candor. It muddled her like wine, or like a first breath of freedom.
The book compares Edna’s experience to being drunk or gaining independence for the first time. Expressing her emotions causes Edna to feel a sense of freedom—this self-understanding, crucially, is part of her titular awakening. Throughout the novel, Edna begins to focus on her inner experiences and desires rather than what other people expect of her, shying away from the strict Victorian norms that dictate her behavior and choices. However, this self-knowledge comes with a risk: she abandons social convention without clear principles to guide her, which ultimately leaves her feeling empty and aimless.
When Edna finally learns to swim, the novel uses a simile to describe the sense of confidence and freedom that overtakes her:
But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with overconfidence. She could have shouted for joy.
Once again, Chopin uses a simile to suggest that Edna transforms the moment she learns to swim. The reference to childhood suggests a transition from innocence to maturity, from dependence to independence. Edna’s ability to swim is a sign of her growing individuality and self-reliance, a major turning point for her. Moreover, the sea Edna learns to swim in is an important symbol in The Awakening. It symbolizes freedom and individuality, as well as emptiness—what the narrator later describes as an "abyss." At the end of the novel, Edna drowns in the very same waters she learned to swim in, suggesting that freedom can be liberating but also overwhelming or suffocating.
In Chapter 12, Edna and Robert plan to go to the Chênière for mass. On the journey there, Edna senses that something about herself is changing, and the book uses a simile to describe this change:
Sailing across the bay to the Chênière Caminada, Edna felt as if she were being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains had been loosening—had snapped the night before when the mystic spirit was abroad, leaving her free to drift whithersoever she chose to set her sails.
This passage describes Edna as being previously tied to an anchor, now free. This figurative language conveys Edna’s new desire for independence, a result of her beginning to focus on her inner life and individuality. The anchor could be said to represent the conventions Edna begins to reject throughout the course of the novel, specifically her duties as a mother and wife. Eventually, though, Edna behaves according to her own desires: she moves into the pigeon-house alone, away from her husband and children, and spends time alone with the young bachelor Alcée Arobin, abandoning the conservative values of the society she lives in. In this sense, the figurative "chains" holding her "snap." However, the novel suggests that Edna’s abandonment of societal rules has a cost, which is perhaps what this passage alludes to when it describes Edna "drift[ing]." Aimless and alone, with no clear principles or social norms to live by, she chooses a tragic form of freedom: death.
After Robert suddenly leaves for Mexico, the book uses a simile to emphasize Edna's growing unhappiness:
The conditions of her life were in no way changed, but her whole existence was dulled, like a faded garment which seems to be no longer worth wearing.
Edna’s life, of course, doesn’t not literally transform in color or appearance to her—the novel uses this simile to express how Edna feels about Robert’s departure. The description of Edna’s life as “dulled,” almost like a paled, lifeless body, emphasizes her sadness and meaninglessness in Robert's absence. His leaving causes Edna to feel depressed, which is a sign of her love for him. She begins to think of him often, and grows disinterested in life around her. Although she experiences a great sadness, though, she is unable to fully express the extent of her feelings, likely because she has been socially conditioned to minimize her own desires.
In Chapter 24, when Edna’s children are sent away and she is finally alone, she feels “a radiant peace.” Later, Edna walks around her home with a new perspective, and the novel uses a simile and an oxymoron to capture Edna’s changed point of view:
The flowers were like new acquaintances; she approached them in a familiar spirit, and made herself at home among them.
This passage compares the flowers to “new acquaintances,” an oxymoron, to suggest the flowers are both familiar and unfamiliar to her. This is a result of Edna seeing her surrounding environment—and eventually social conventions—anew, a result of her experiencing an awakening during the summer at Grand Isle. This process of awakening, for Edna, brings her clarity and allows her to recognize her desires, which are ultimately in conflict with the expectations placed on her as a woman living in restrictive Victorian society.
After Edna succumbs to her attraction to Alcée Arobin and kisses him, she gains a new understanding of herself and the world. The book uses a simile to explain Edna's changing mindset:
She felt as if a mist had been lifted from her eyes, enabling her to look upon and comprehend the significance of life, that monster made up of beauty and brutality.
The simile of mist clearing to expose a monster represents a change from a romantic to realistic point of view. After Edna kisses Arobin, her romantic feelings lift, and she is forced to face the reality of her actions. Throughout the novel, Edna feels a great tension between a romantic worldview—the expression of her inner life, desires, and emotions—and reality, namely the rules and expectations she faces as a woman living in a conservative society. Edna's inner romanticism prevails over reality at the end of the novel, symbolized by her fatal swim in the Gulf.
At the end of the novel, Edna disrobes and stands naked before the Gulf. The book uses a simile to describe the significance of this moment:
She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.
In comparing Edna to a "new-born" creature, the novel emphasizes how transformative this moment is for Edna. By removing her swimsuit and swimming naked, Edna abandons social convention, acting on her desires instead of abiding by the social norms that dictate how she should behave. The simile suggests that Edna has been reborn, completely transformed. This bold act of individuality and freedom, however, paradoxically occurs moments before her death. Soon after, caught between either a restrictive life full of obligation or an aimless life, Edna chooses the ultimate freedom of death.