Throughout The Awakening, Kate Chopin effectively employs water as a central symbol. Despite the realism in the author’s overall approach, the novel can be analyzed as symbolic because she relies heavily on that symbol to convey numerous important points about Edna Pontellier’s transformation. Water plays both positive and negative roles. It symbolizes life, positive energy, and passion. In contrast, at the novel’s end, that same water stands for limitations, failure, and even death.
The waters around Grand Isle, in particular, play important roles in Edna’s awakening. The powerful but welcoming waters stand for the encouraging environment of the vacation setting, where she becomes aware of the possibilities of change. The positive development of learning to swim symbolizes Edna’s new awareness of her potential for personal growth and achievement. The lively waters also stand for the vibrant energy of sexual desire.
Edna keeps trying to push back the boundaries of social convention, but in the end she cannot get past the numerous restrictions that women faced in that era. Her efforts to swim a greater distance than she once thought possible symbolizes her efforts to get past those social obstacles. In the end, the water welcomes and accepts her despite her failures. The “seductive” sea provides the medium for what she considers a rebirth through death.