Nature and the Human Soul: The Shackles of Freedom

Meghan Reid
Professor Zimmerman
Honors English
December 1, 1998

Langston Hughes and Kate Chopin use nature in several dimensions to demonstrate the powerful struggles and burdens of human life. Throughout Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and several of Langston Hughes’ poems, the sweeping imagery of the beauty and power of nature demonstrates the struggles the characters confront, and their eventual freedom from those struggles. Nature and freedom coexist, and the characters eventually learn to find freedom from the confines of society, oneself, and finally freedom within one’s soul. The use of nature for this purpose brings the characters and speakers in Chopin’s and Hughes’ works to life, and the reader feels the life and freedom of those characters. Nature, in the works of Chopin and Hughes serves as a powerful symbol that represents the struggle of the human soul towards freedom, the anguish of that struggle, and the joy when that freedom is finally reached.
In The Awakening, the protagonist Edna Pontellier undergoes a metamorphosis. She lives in Creole society, a society that restricts sexuality, especially for women of the time. Edna is bound by the confines of a loveless marriage, unfulfilled, unhappy, and closed in like a caged bird. During her summer at Grand Isle she is confronted with herself in her truest nature, and finds herself swept away by passion and love for someone she cannot have, Robert Lebrun. The imagery of the ocean at Grand Isle and its attributes symbolize a force calling her to confront her internal struggles, and find freedom. Chopin uses the imagery of the ocean to represent the innate force within her soul that is calling to her. “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in a maze of inward contemplation.” (p.14) Through nature and its power, Edna, begins to find freedom in her soul and then returns to a life in the city where reside the conflicts that surround her.
Edna grew up on a Mississippi plantation, where life was simple, happy, and peaceful. The images of nature, which serve as a symbol for freedom of the soul, appear when she speaks of this existence. In the novel, she remembers a simpler life when she was a child, engulfed in nature and free:
“The hot wind beating in my face made me think – without any connection that I can trace – of a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than her waist. She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water.” (p.17)
Chopin’s reference to swimming occurs many times in the novel, and through the ocean and her experiences swimming, she not only confronts nature, but she challenges and discovers her true self. The use of nature is especially significant as a memory in her childhood because it marks a time in her life when she was happy and free. This image of swimming returns to her when her soul is beginning to reopen, at Grand Isle.
When Edna finally learns to swim, she finds herself frightened, alone, overwhelmed, and surrounded in a vast expanse of water. Her experience swimming in the ocean for the first time parallels her discovery and immersion in the true nature of her soul: “As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself . . . A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her sense.” (p.28) She is frightened by her own self-discovery – yet is enraptured by it. It is this contradiction and this confrontation with nature that is brings about Edna’s self-discovery and metamorphosis within the novel. It is more than love for Robert that drives her to be free from the restrictions of this society. Instead, it is her discovery of her own self that causes her to shun the confines of society. Edna’s “self-discovery” awakens her, and she is able to greet her own soul, a soul filled with passion