Symbols and Settings in White Oleander and the Awakening
The Awakening and Janet Fitch’s modern tale of White Oleander, though set many years apart, share some of the same elements of fiction. Each possesses several key settings that are both recurring and prominent places in the stories. Much of the story takes place within these settings, making it easy for the audience to pick up on their distinction. Both stories also contain numerous symbols that help to convey the themes to the audience. These particular symbols are not subtle parts of the story and each play a central part of the piece.
Throughout all of The Awakening Edna Pontellier experiences a gradual development of independence and a sense of herself. One element that helps her form her self-sufficiency is her homes. Most notably is the hideaway that she and Robert seek refuge in which belongs to Madame Antoine. This shelter symbolizes not a home, but a temporary harbor away from the responsibilities of her husband and family with her lover. The illicit time she and Robert spend together on the Cheniere Caminada is based on feelings of lust; “his face was suffused with a quiet glow when he met her,” (Chopin 44).
Throughout the whole novel, Edna never has a defined “home”, and it seems that her homes are more of a prison. The ocean setting also plays an integral part of Edna’s awakening in that her first and final awakenings occur in the sea. The “voice of the sea speaks to the soul,” and to Edna, that voice was crying individualism (Chopin 18). Edna’s indecisiveness about her relationships is what causes her ultimately to surrender to the sea. She allows the vast, powerful ocean with its “seductive, never-ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring” voice to overcome her and her troubles.
Edna only goes through the motions of being a wife and mother. By never allowing anyone to truly grow close to her, she gives her life to her family but not her actual self. She actually feels relief when they are not around. “A radiant peace settled upon her when she at last finds herself alone,” which further exemplifies the fact that she resents the duties expected of her by religion and Creole society (Chopin 97). She does not enjoy the job of having to take care of her husband, but does, however, begin to miss taking care of her boys.
This is evident after a visit to Iberville when she returns home and “glad to see the children,” (Chopin 127). It is when she feels their “little arms clasping her” and sees their “hungry eyes that could not be satisfied with looking” that she realizes that her marriage is not just about her own selfish happiness (Chopin 127). She realizes what an effect her infidelity could have on her boys and the whole way home “their prescience lingered with her like the memory of a delicious song,” (Chopin 128). Birds are a recurring symbol in The Awakening as well.
Mademoiselle Reisz refers to them when she makes the unusual statement: “The birds that would soar above the level of pain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth,” (Chopin 112). This statement could refer to Edna herself, in that she is attempting to rise above the rumors and society’s expectations. She does not always succeed, sometimes giving in to her worldly affections for Robert, bruising her heart and making her weak. Birds are also seen in Edna’s final scene at the sea.
It is appropriate that “a bird with a broken wing is beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water,” (Chopin 156). Edna in this case is the bird, who has finally succumbed to her weaknesses and is letting “exhaustion press on her and overpower her,” into the deep and powerful sea. (Chopin 156). The element of music plays an important part of White Oleander. It functions not only as a symbol of Astrid’s changing identities, but also as a setting. Music is the one home that is consistent for Astrid.
Each home may be different, and with each home may come a new variety of music, but the music in itself remains constant. With each home Astrid is transferred into, her taste in music changes. In the Turlock’s home, Astrid is mesmerized by Olivia Johnstone’s sophisticated air. She is introduced to Miles Davis at Olivia’s house and ironically the song “Seven Steps to Heaven” is playing. After being through such immense emotional suffering Astrid even wonders to her, “seven steps are all it takes? ” (Fitch 145). Fascinated by every opulent element of Olivia, Astrid makes her an icon.
Olivia proves herself to be in fact, human, when she fails to abandon her carefree lifestyle and slips away, leaving Astrid “without music,” (Fitch 177). Astrid’s home with Amelia Ramos in the boarding house is not filled with music or plush neighbors. The lack of music in this part of Astrid’s life symbolizes how little she had to live for. Besides being improperly cared for and malnourished, she receives daunting letters from her mother’s cellmate, asking Astrid “why make it harder” for Ingrid (Fitch 204). Astrid has nowhere to turn if she cannot confide in her mother, or her caretaker, or the ultimate retreat: music.
When Astrid goes to live with Claire and Ron music is an even bigger setting because of the huge impact Claire has on Astrid’s entire life. As Judy Garland sings “My Funny Valentine” Astrid expresses to Claire that how much she loves spending time together. She tells Claire when asked about the best day of her life that it had in fact been “today! ” (Fitch 219). She thinks deeper, and “looks for buried coins in the sand,” and despite all of the foul things that Ingrid has said to her daughter, Astrid continues to think of Ingrid (Fitch 219).
Astrid recalls a lone sunny day they spent together in Amsterdam when everything was simpler. She associates that pleasant day with Ingrid’s singing of “whoopee ti yi yo, git along little dogies” (Fitch 219). Astrid’s final move to cold and bleak Berlin represents her willingness to finally separate herself from Ingrid in warm, sunny California. Astrid expresses that she likes Berlin because “the city and I understood each other,” (Fitch 455). The crumbling apartment she shares with Paul Trout is symbolic of “building on the ruins,” (Fitch 455).
Astrid is putting the injuries, foster homes, men and scars behind her to build on her remains of her life. She has made the choice to disconnect herself from “all her mothers” and reject the chance of a fresh start with her Ingrid (Fitch 459). Astrid has been shipped from bad foster homes to worse foster homes, met Claire, lost Claire, and after all of this trauma-refuses to give in to her blood “whispering” her mother’s name (Fitch 464). Why? Paul remarks that “it’s the century of the displaced person. You can never go home,” (Fitch 463).
The oleander grows in the harshest of conditions, surviving the hot Santa Ana winds that “shrivel the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw” (Fitch 1). Astrid grew to become an independent young lady through the unfortunate adolescence spent with questionable foster families. The oleander is also very pretty, but very deadly with its “delicate, poisonous blooms,” (Fitch 1). Ingrid’s outer “beauty was like the edge of a very sharp knife,” (Fitch 2). The oleander is the very object that condemned Ingrid to prison, but it is also such an accurate representation of her and Astrid.
Astrid’s passion for art was the only part of her life that she took a remote amount of pride in. Claire saw Astrid’s potential and encouraged her to sign up for honors classes and excel in school. This love of art was another separation between Ingrid and Astrid. Enclosed in letters to Ingrid were sketches of the families she lived with. They sometimes got comment-sometimes got comments from Ingrid like “I wash my hands of you” or “spare me your enthusiasms,” (Fitch 174-175). Ingrid rarely shows a genuine interest in her daughter, but instead cares only about shaping Astrid to her views and ideas.
Instead of treating Astrid like a daughter, she treats her more like a misbehaving pet. Any time Astrid has new convictions or in the case of Claire, a new inspiration, Ingrid immediately goes on the defensive and instructs her to read “The Female Eunch” or “Leaves of Grass,” (Fitch 161). She is “prescribing her books like medicines” because Ingrid knows that of Astrid will continue to take advice from her she still has control (Fitch 161). This is why her art is never encouraged; it is not something that Ingrid can control. The endings for both stories could be deemed ambiguous.
The Awakening’s ending seems romantic in that she succumbs herself to the ocean, much like she is giving in to Fate. The independent, defiant ending of White Oleander seems more naturalistic. The stories characters each provide the audience with apparent evidence of symbols whether it is written in a letter or stated. Each story provides the audience with an interesting setting whether it is the gigantic ocean or the varied settings through music.