In Kate Chopin's brief novel The Awakening, Mademoiselle Reiz tells Edna, "The bird that would soar above the level of plain tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth" (page 83).
What does this quote mean and how does it relate to Edna's situation in the novel?
Mademoiselle Reisz is a key character in Kate Chopin'sThe Awakening. She represents two contrasting models of womanhood in the novel. The other model, that of the "mother-woman," is represented by Adele Ratignolle. Reisz, on the other hand, represents the single woman who, because of her complete commitment to her art and to other intellectual pursuits, has no husband or children. Her advice to Edna is important in several ways, including the following:
- The reference to a "bird" is part of the novel's whole emphasis on bird imagery, which begins in the book's very first paragraph and which continues until almost the very end of the work. Thus the imagery contributes to the unity of the novel.
- The use of the verb "soar" implies that most women (indeed, most people) never do "soar" in their lives; they never go over and above what is expected of them or what conventional roles dictate. The person who soars is a person with unusual, lofty aspirations. Clearly Reisz regards herself as such a person because she demonstrates an almost total commitment to her art and is recognized by others as an unusually talented musician.
- Reisz's reference to the "level plain of tradition" suggests that conventional, typical behavior is rather flat, empty, and uninspiring (unlike, say, a very high mountain). Such a life is "plain" in more senses than one. Most people (Reisz thinks) live such predictable, uninspired, and uninspiring lives, whereas Reisz thinks of herself, her music, and its composers as having gone above and beyond anything merely common or normal.
- Reisz's reference to "prejudice" refers primarily to anything that has already been "pre-judged" -- that is, anything that implies a lack of original thought and a mere conformance to what is already expected by others.
- Reisz's reference to "strong wings" implies that anyone who seeks to go above and beyond the traditional, the commonplace, or the conventional must have a kind of inner strength -- especially strength of character, strength of commitment, strength of intelligence, and strength of self-understanding. A weak person is unlikely to be original, innovative, creative, or uncommon. A person lacking strength is likely to give in to social pressures, especially the pressure to conform to standard social roles (such as the roles of wife and/or mother).
- Reisz's final sentence here is an effective example of the foreshadowing that Chopin so often uses in this novel. In Chapter 39, as Edna stands naked on a beach facing the Gulf of Mexico, she does indeed witness a bird falling from the sky. This tumbling bird can be seen as representing Edna's own failure, by this point in the novel, in her efforts to achieve an independent, uncommon, untraditional life. Some critics regard Edna's failure as the fault of the enormous social pressures she faces -- pressures that allow little freedom. Other critics regard Edna's failure as a result of her own shortcomings as a person, especially her romanticism, or inability to face reality, and/or her lack of purpose and commitment. In any case, anyone who reads the reference to the falling bird in Chapter 39 is almost bound to remember Reisz's advice to Edna earlier in the book. Edna herself seems to feel that she has fallen short of the ideals Reisz has sketched for her. She even imagines that Reisz would have laughed, perhaps sneered, if she knew of Edna's failure. This assumption, however, is purely speculative on Edna's part.