1 Study Questions
1. What is the symbolic importance of the lady in black and of the two lovers? These characters often appear at the same points in the novel; what is the significance of this pairing?
Answer for Study Question 1 >>
The lady in black represents the conventional Victorian ideal of the widowed woman. She does not embark on a life of independence after fulfilling her duties as a wife; instead, she devotes herself to the memory of her husband and, through religion, to his departed soul. If Léonce were to die, a widowed Edna would be expected to lead her life in such a socially acceptable manner. Edna longs for independence from her husband, but the lady in black embodies the only such independence that society accepts in women: the patient, resigned solitude of a widow. This solitude does not speak to any sort of strength of autonomy but rather to an ascetic, self-effacing withdrawal from life and passion. It is as though the widow’s identity is entirely contingent upon her husband: the fact of his death means that she, too, must cease to experience the pleasures of life. Throughout the novel, this black-clad woman never speaks. Her lack of self-expression reinforces the lack of individuality underlying her self-governed but meaningless life.
The two young lovers are obvious mirrors of Robert and Edna, displaying the life they might have had together, had they met before Edna’s marriage. At several points in the novel, the lady in black follows the young lovers. Her solitude and mourning symbolize the eventual failure of every union and, thus, the imminent failure of Robert and Edna’s relationship.
2. What is the symbolic meaning of Edna’s first successful attempt to swim?
Answer for Study Question 2 >>
Paradoxically, Edna’s first swim symbolizes both rebirth and maturation. When she descends to the beach, she is described as a “little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who . . . walks for the first time alone.” Before her awakening, Edna is afraid of abandoning herself to the sea’s embrace, feeling an “ungovernable dread . . . when in the water, unless there was a hand near by that might reach out and reassure her.” Early in The Awakening, the sea is described as “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.” The sea represents truth and loneliness, a vast expanse of solitude and vulnerability that Edna has long been afraid to enter. Her relationship with Robert has caused her to begin to develop and explore her own identity. As Edna discovers for the first time her own power, she begins her rebellion. Her swim in the ocean shows that she is no longer dependent on the help of others, as was expected of women, but instead finds strength and support within herself.
Before her rebirth, Edna was trapped in a perpetual childhood of feminine dependency. When she realizes that she is, in fact, swimming, Edna shouts, “Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby!” Edna’s shout of triumph symbolizes her shedding of the prolonged childhood forced on Victorian women. During the first six years of her marriage, Edna had resisted Léonce’s will only in momentary spurts, always eventually conceding and conforming to his authority. Now, however, she will no longer be ruled as a child. Becoming reckless and over-confident, she wants to swim “where no woman had swum before,” and she reaches out “for the unlimited in which to lose herself.” She extends her arms and explores the expanse of her new world.
Edna’s awakening is not complete with this swim though, for, looking back, the distance to the shore seems to her “a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome.” Dread of death seizes her and she realizes the flip side to independence: she can rely on nothing but her own strength to get her back to safety. Her failed attempt...
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