Chopin drew on a long history of bird imagery in women’s writing to establish The Awakening’s opening image: the green-and-yellow parrot. Women writers since the 1700s had used caged birds as symbols to represent the limitations of their own domestic lives. Chopin’s parrot, which symbolizes Edna, not only voices a desire for solitude (a condition necessary for creation of art and pursuit of self-knowledge) but at the same time represents the pressure exerted by both individuals and society in general for everyone to follow the same rules and display the same behavior. When her story begins, Edna obeys this implicit rule to go along with the crowd but later, as she begins to come into contact with her true self, she behaves as her moods and whims dictate rather than doing what everyone else does, such as when she abandons her reception day. Chopin herself detested parrots because they imitate what they hear instead of singing their own song.
Hanging in a cage on the other side of the door from the parrot is a mockingbird, who symbolizes the outspoken Mademoiselle Reisz, the only character to truly understand Edna’s desire to achieve independence in thought and action. Although faced with her own limitations, as a single woman with little money, Mademoiselle Reisz wings defiantly away from the conventions that would impede her pursuit of art.
Chopin also uses wing imagery in her characterization of mother-women: “They were women…esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.” This angel image contrasts sharply with the bad-tempered parrot and its caged compatriot, the mockingbird, as do the very personalities of those characters they represent. The mother-women willingly allow their angel wings to be clipped by their way of life, made unsuitable for flight, in exchange for the security that accompanies their roles. As wives of wealthy businessmen, they are rewarded for carrying out their domesticated role with a place in upper-class society, lovely homes, fine clothes, and all of the other privileges and prestige that accompany their social position. Yet their acceptance of these rewards makes them beholden to their husbands, ensuring their dependence.
Note that when Leonce becomes tired of listening to the parrot’s loudly repeated phrases and the mockingbird’s persistent whistling, he has “the privilege of quitting [the birds’] society when they ceased to be entertaining.” Meanwhile, the birds can only protest as best they can when the environment in which their cages hang becomes unacceptable to them, such as when the parrot seems to be objecting to listening yet again to the Farival twins play their oft-repeated duets on piano. Like Edna, the parrot is censured for his honesty by those who have a sentimental need to maintain certain appearances of civility or enthusiasm, despite their true feelings about the situation. Tired of effacing her own innate self to carry out the mother-woman role, Edna breaks with all social expectation when she exercises her “privilege of quitting” Leonce’s company by moving into the so-called pigeon house. Note that while she has made progress in that she has escaped Leonce’s gilded cage, still she is defined as a domesticated bird.
A critical use of the bird imagery is Mademoiselle Reisz’s symbolic assessment of Edna’s wings, an incident Edna describes to Arobin: Mademoiselle Reisz “felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong,” and warned that those individuals who would “soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings” lest they find themselves unable to complete their flight and fall to their death. Such an image evokes the legend of Icarus, who achieved flight with a set of manufactured wings but fell to his death in the sea when out of pride he flew too high, and the sun melted the wax that held the feathers to his artificial wings. Interestingly, when The Awakening was first published, some reviewers not only condemned the book, but also insisted that Edna’s death was well deserved because she was selfish enough to value her journey to self-realization over her household and family.