Birds, which are featured frequently in the story, symbolize Edna, and in many cases they foreshadow what’s to become of her, or they show her renewal of life. The imagery of birds throughout the book is used to symbolize freedom, which is exactly what Edna was trying to achieve from her husband, children, and all the other people that antagonized her. Edna has struggled all summer to learn to swim. She has been coached by the men, women, and children on Grand Isle. Swimming provides Edna with strength and joy, and yet makes her feel just like a child. “But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with overconfidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water” 47. This passage marks Edna’s rebirth, or renewal.
Here she is described just like a child learning to walk, as she swims for her first time alone. This scene also foreshadows the ending, for here, in the ocean, is where Edna’s first rebirth occurs, and in this same place she will take her life. Birds are also major symbolic images in the story. Flight, which is associated with birds, acts as a stand-in for awakening. The ability to spread your wings and fly is a symbolic theme that occurs often in the novel.
Mademoiselle Reisz tells Edna “the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings” 138. She uses birds to forecast Edna”s future and evaluate Edna”s strength. In order to soar like a bird, Edna must be strong, but Mademoiselle Reisz realizes that Edna is weak.
Reisz says, “it is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth” 138. Mademoiselle Reisz understands that Edna is not like herself and cannot fight society. Later, when Edna realizes the hopelessness of her situation, birds, once again, symbolically foreshadow her fate. Upon reaching the beach on her final walk, Edna looks around and sees: “A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water” 189. This bird is the final omen that reflects Mademoiselle Reisz”s words: “it is sad to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth” 138.
The bird, disabled and weakened because of its broken wing, falls back to earth and suffers defeat.