The Awakening contains many symbolic features, such as the way Edna uses art, the birds
(the parrot and the mockingbird), sleep, music, and the houses Edna Pontellier lives in, but
perhaps two of the most significant symbols are the clothes in the novel, not only of Edna,
but also the other characters, and the water, whether it be the ocean, the gulf, or the sea.
These two symbols are possibly the most significant because of their direct relationship to
Edna Pontellier. Both the water and her clothes have the power to not only emphasize, but
help show exactly how and what Edna is feeling.
Clothes appear to have significant meaning in The Awakening, enough so that they
are mentioned at almost every description of the characters. Edna Pontellier starts the novel
fully dressed and appropriately dressed for a woman of her responsibilities, however, at her
final moment, she is naked on the beach. Other women in the story also represent their
position and the way they feel in the way they dress. For example, Madmoiselle Reisz
never changes her clothes. This could possibly symbolize her physical detachment from
anything around her, including nature and any suppressed feelings. In contrast, Ednas
clothes represent her physical attachment to society. She sheds her clothes the way a snake
sheds its skin when it is time for a new one and it does not fit into the old one any longer.
Edna doesnt feel like she can fit into society any longer. Madmoiselle Reisz, on the other
hand, does not seem to have any desire to be more than what she has been given in the
society in which she lives. Therefore, she does not change her clothes, because she does not
feel the need for change in her life.
Other characters, such as Madame Leburn always have new clothes to cover their
bodies. This could, perhaps, represent the constant need to cover their sexuality as women in
suppressed roles as wives and mothers. Ednas nakedness at the end of the novel symbolizes
her freedom from any claims her children may have on her and shows how her lack of clothes
is equal to her lack of responsibility, of her family and the 1890s society.
The Ocean is a clear symbol of freedom for Edna. The water is where Edna feels
replenished and she begins to realize that she is not satisfied with her life and roles as wife
and mother. This happens on the day she learns to swim, which is something she had wanted
to accomplish all summer. By learning to swim, she is empowered and becomes more
self-aware, of not only her sexuality, but also of who she is and not who society says she
The water in The Awakening could be seen to symbolize Ednas rebirth into a more
assertive woman. Every time she enters the water, she gets stronger, until finally her strength
is more powerful than her love for her children, or her life. At this point she goes so far out
to sea, that the water takes back the strength it had geven her.
Both the water and the clothes in the novel are very important symbols, both helping
to emphasize Edna Pontelliers new life. She starts the novel as a very suppressed woman
(fully clothed) and covered by society and its strict roles, and then ends naked as if she is
escaping the restricted boundaries of her clothes and of society. The water is a constant
source of new life for Edna, and as her clothes are removed to go into the water, they are
replaced by a more greater sense of power and energy, the freedom that the water has helped