topic B - Hutchinson-page

Topic B: In ch. 27, Mlle Reisz tells Edna, “the bird that would soar above the level plain of
tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.” Explain what Reisz’s words mean in the
context of the novel, and then discuss how this notion is central to the novel’s themes.
Deborah Ghim – p. 2
Kate Chopin’s protagonist, Edna Pontellier, is “the bird that would soar above the
level plain of tradition and prejudice” in The Awakening. As Edna stumbles upon the path
to self-discovery, her internal questioning of her role in the traditional society of New
Orleans takes her to great heights – yet Mlle. Reisz warns her to “have strong wings.”
Edna’s flight as well as her misinterpretation of Mlle. Reisz’s advice establishes itself as the
central theme to the overall work.
Chopin utilizes the bird analogy early on in the first chapter, where she introduces
the caged parrot. This image is closely related to the exchange between Edna and her
husband, in which she takes her wedding rings from him and slips them on, symbolizing
the shackles that bind her to their traditional marriage. Edna’s flight from this ‘cage’ is
catalyzed by Mlle. Reisz’s encouragement, as evident by Edna’s reaction to the song that
Mlle. Reisz plays for her on the piano. The protagonist’s vision of the solitary man beside
the rock is a metaphor for the human condition and our obligation to societal expectations.
Simultaneously, the longing with which the man watches the bird flying away represents
the flight “above the level plain of tradition and prejudice” that we subconsciously desire,
as well as foreshadowing Edna’s own personal flight to come.
While Chopin portrays the characteristics of the traditional mother-figure as the
“protective wings of angels,” characterized by Mme. Ratignolle, Edna’s own “wings” are of a
different nature. Newly enlightened to her true desires, Edna becomes reckless and rejects
her societal roles. Recognizing Edna’s pursuit of what is beyond traditional happiness,
Mlle. Reisz touches Edna’s shoulder blades and warns her to “have strong wings,” for it is a
shame to see the “broken wings” of the birds that fall back to earth. This serves as an
allusion to the story of Icarus, who – with his newly-found wings – flies too close to the sun,
despite his father’s warnings, and falls to his death.
Ironically, Edna also misunderstands Mlle. Reisz and continues to fly higher and
higher above the “level plain of tradition and prejudice” by pursuing both Robert and her
simultaneous affair with Arobin. Though her wings had been strong enough to help her
soar to this point, Edna reaches the sun with the realization that she is bound to her
maternal role. Caught between the life she is obligated to lead and the life she desires
above the “level plain of tradition,” Chopin portrays Edna as another broken bird fallen
back down to earth through her inevitable suicide. The bird with the broken wing along
the shore of the beach in the last scene is Chopin’s conclusion to the theme, for it is a shame
to see broken birds fall back to earth.