The sea is a dominant metaphor in The Awakening, which Chopin employs to both familiar and novel effect. Since the days of ancient near eastern creation epics, the sea has stood for primordial chaos and danger; clearly, the sea takes on these characteristics in Chopin’s novel as well. In Chapter X, for example, Edna swims out into the ocean, only to feel a “certain ungovernable dread.” Or again, earlier, in Chapter VI, as Edna begins to “awaken” to her position in her world, Chopin juxtaposes a comment about the “voice of the sea” with a paragraph describing the beginnings of a new world: “[T]he beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!” Not by accident does Chopin set Edna’s awakening on the resort of Grand Isle and in the coastal city of New Orleans-places where the sea is always close at hand. Yet even as Chopin thus alludes to the chaotic nature of the sea, she also draws attention to the sea as a source of life and new birth. Edna’s mastery of swimming offers a case in point: she swims with “newly conquered power” toward “the unlimited in which to lose herself.” The sea has opened up a new expanse of exploration for Edna-an expanse in which, ironically, Edna’s “loss” of herself really marks the “gaining” of herself. Throughout the novel, the sea is almost a character in itself; Chopin makes many references to its “voice,” which calls to and even seduces Edna into her newly “awakened” life. Returning again to Chapter VI, perhaps the clearest statement of this aspect of the sea for the book: “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.” By the story’s end, of course, Edna has succumbed to-or, perhaps stating the matter more positively, has fully answered-this wild call to self-discovery and -actualization voiced by the sea. As Edna begins her final walk into the Gulf in Chapter XXXIX, Chopin repeats verbatim from Chapter VI as quoted above (i.e., “The voice of the sea . . . .”). In this scene, the sea clearly represents new birth, as Edna enters the waters “naked in the open air,” as vulnerable as a newborn infant. Indeed, Edna herself feels “like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.” Further, Edna “regresses” (although Chopin herself does not use such psychological language) to her adolescence and childhood the further she goes into the ocean; she recalls “oceans” of Kentucky blue-grass in which she grew up, “oceans” that represented a time when she was truer to her self than she became in later, married, domesticated, conventional life. Thus, the sea stands for freedom, even as Edna is-presumably; for fullest thematic impact, the text itself does not specify-drowning in it. The sea is both life and death; indeed, there can be no “real” life for Edna without the death of her old “life.” The final sea-related images in the book allude not only to the ancient mythological creation epics (such as found in Genesis 1), but also to the ritual of baptism (as a “bird with a broken wing” falls into the water; an ironic reference to the Holy Spirit who descended as a dove at the baptism of Jesus) and to the Christian understanding of the “fall from grace” (Genesis 3; note how Chopin depicts the ocean lapping at Edna’s feet in a serpentine manner). If Edna is experiencing a “fall,” it is what some Christian traditions refer to as a “happy fall” (or felix culpa, “happy fault”): a much-needed, long-overdue “fall” from ignorance into knowledge, from immaturity into maturity, from slavery into freedom . . . and it all happens at the beckoning-the “loving but imperative entreaty” (Chapter V)-of the potentially deadly but ultimately life-giving sea.
Sleep and wakefulness also serve as powerful metaphors throughout the book-not surprising, given its title! For Edna, to be awake is “to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.” To be awake, then, is to know. To be awake is, in a sense, to be enlightened.
At times, Chopin makes the metaphor explicit; for instance, see the “Mass” Edna celebrates after she wakes up in Chapter XIII (see comments in “Summary and Analysis” for this chapter)-having literally awakened from her nap, Edna metaphorically awakens to the vivid details of the world about her, and she asks, like a feminine Rip Van Winkle, “How many years have I slept?” As with the metaphor of the sea, the metaphor of wakefulness culminates in the final chapter. Chopin notes that Edna “had done all the thinking which was necessary” to realize her fundamental isolation from this old world, and her need to enter a new one, “when she lay awake upon the sofa till morning.” Knowledge is here clearly equated with wakefulness, and ignorance with sleep-a sleep Edna avoided. She is, however, welcomed by the sea into a pure kind of “sleep” as the sea, like a mother soothing a drowsy child, is “enfolding [her] body in its soft, close embrace.” Alone, in the sea, Edna will “sleep” the sleep of death . . . but, the story implies, she will be more awake than any one she has left behind in the old world.