how does the novel frame notions of freedom
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Freedom is found in the short story's symbolism, primarily shown in the places Edna lives;
Madame Antoine’s house serves only as a temporary shelter/ p[lace of freedom, but it is not a “home.” Edna’s newfound world of liberty is not a place where she can remain; it belongs to someone else.
The “pigeon house” affords Edna both a “home” and independent. Once she moves to the pigeon house, Edna no longer has to look at the material objects that Léonce has purchased and with which Edna equates herself. She can behave as she likes, without regard to how others will view her actions. In the end, however, the little house will prove not to be the solution Edna expected. While it does provide her with independence and isolation, allowing her to progress in her sexual awakening and to escape the gilded cage that Léonce’s house constituted, Edna finds herself cooped anew, if less extravagantly. The fact that her final house resembles those used to keep domesticated pigeons does not bode well for Edna’s fate. In the end, feeling alternately an exile and a prisoner, she is “at home” nowhere. Only in death can she hope to find the things a home offers—respite, privacy, shelter, and comfort.
Symbols of Freedom
In The Awakening, caged birds serve as reminders of Edna’s entrapment and also of the entrapment of Victorian women in general. Madame Lebrun’s parrot and mockingbird represent Edna and Madame Reisz, respectively. Like the birds, the women’s movements are limited (by society), and they are unable to communicate with the world around them. The novel’s “winged” women may only use their wings to protect and shield, never to fly.
Edna’s attempts to escape her husband, children, and society manifest this arrested flight, as her efforts only land her in another cage: the pigeon house. While Edna views her new home as a sign of her independence, the pigeon house represents her inability to remove herself from her former life, as her move takes her just “two steps away.” Mademoiselle Reisz instructs Edna that she must have strong wings in order to survive the difficulties she will face if she plans to act on her love for Robert. She warns: “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.”
Critics who argue that Edna’s suicide marks defeat, both individually and for women, point out the similar wording of the novel’s final example of bird imagery: “A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.” If, however, the bird is not a symbol of Edna herself, but rather of Victorian womanhood in general, then its fall represents the fall of convention achieved by Edna’s suicide.
The sea in The Awakening symbolizes freedom and escape. It is a vast expanse that Edna can brave only when she is solitary and only after she has discovered her own strength. When in the water, Edna is reminded of the depth of the universe and of her own position as a human being within that depth. The sensuous sound of the surf constantly beckons and seduces Edna throughout the novel.
Water’s associations with cleansing and baptism make it a symbol of rebirth. The sea, thus, also serves as a reminder of the fact that Edna’s awakening is a rebirth of sorts. Appropriately, Edna ends her life in the sea: a space of infinite potential becomes a blank and enveloping void that carries both a promise and a threat. In its sublime vastness, the sea represents the strength, glory, and lonely horror of independence.]
When she makes her way down to the beach for the last time, she thinks of her earthly responsibilities. “The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her soul to slavery for the rest of her days” (722). Her only way to elude them (and the countless other responsibilities of her life) was to drown herself in the ocean. In many senses, Edna’s suicide is the result of her final awakening—that she has been unable to balance a sense of self and freedom with the demands of life. Her feet, despite her best efforts, straddled two words; one of the lone artist and seeker and the other the Victorian woman enamored with society and the home. Since she could not create a balance or allow herself to live one life over the other completely, her only choice was suicide. Her awakening happened almost too quickly and her actions as a result of it were too hasty and brash. The only way to cleanse herself of both worlds was to enter the sea—the site of her baptism into awakening.