Nature and the Human Soul: The Shackles of Freedom


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 and sexuality. However, ev! en though she has found freedom
within her own soul, she cannot be truly free in this urban society.
The symbol of the ocean appears again after Edna has been awakened and
discovered the power of her self. Edna, with an inner sense of
freedom, confronts the realization that the shackles of society that
require her submission are powerful forces which will try to bend and
taint her new sense of freedom. Again, we see the contradiction of the
pure bliss of self^discovery and awakening conflicting directly with
the restrictions of society that do not allow Edna to be free. This
contradiction causes massive internal struggle for Edna, and for her,
there seems to be only one way to resolve this conflict. This
confrontation is brought to light at the end of the novel through the
symbol of the ocean: ^She cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from
her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open
air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the
waves that invited her.^ (p. 108) Edna has discovered something
inside her and she cannot retu! rn to the person she was. Her soul is
free, but the burden of that freedom is too much, it overwhelms and
overtakes her so that she cannot exist in this world. It seems to Edna
that life is not worth living in a prison. As a result, at the end of
the novel, the ocean beckons and she follows. She swims into the
inviting and seductive sea, never to return. In the ocean, she is
free. Similarly, in Langston Hughes^ poetry, nature serves as a strong
symbol for triumphs and defeat of the soul. He uses the imagery of
rivers to demonstrate the speaker^s connection with the earth and
nature in his poem, ^The Negro Speaks of Rivers^. In this poem, the
speaker in the poem has ^known rivers^; he speaks of ^rivers ancient as
the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.^
Rivers symbolize the lifeline of the earth. When the speaker refers to
the rivers, he is reflecting on his connection with the earth. He
feels a part of the earth, and it is almost as if his soul is kindred
to the earth when he says, ^My soul has grown deep like the rivers.^
In this poem, Langston Hughes uses the imagery and symbolism of rivers
as an expression of the oneness between the soul and the earth. The
speaker^s soul is united with nature; he is like a river in that he is
connected with earth, nature, and himself. In the poem ^Sun Song^, by
Langston Hughes, there is a similar expression of the affinity between
man and earth, yet a subtle contrast exists. In this poem, nature is
not viewed as wholly perfect. The speaker sings of ^Sun and softness,^
and ^Sun and the beaten hardness of the earth^. The softness of the
sun and the hardness of the earth demonstrate the dichotomy of man^s
relationship with nature. Man basks in the beauty of nature while at
the same time struggling against its forces. The earth is hard and we
toil under the sun, yet we can appreciate the wonder of ^Sun and the
song of all the sun-stars.^ Hughes^ musical language expresses without
disdain this relationship between man and the earth. Again, in the
poem ^Dream Variations^, Hughes demonstrates how nature helps celebrate
and free the soul. The tone of the poem is celebratory and the speaker
is joyous as he rejoices at the end of a day:

To fling my arms wide 
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance 
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree . . .

The speaker^s soul is free and liberated as he rejoices with nature.
He celebrates in the sun, and rests beneath the comfort of a tree.
Nature not only provides man with a means to express the freedom of his
soul, but it also gives man relief. In contrast, a different side of
nature is depicted in Hughes^ poem, ^Song for a Dark Girl^. The
language in this poem paints a macabre picture of a racist south. In
this poem, nature is harsh, unfair, and cruel. Instead of providing
man with a means to express the freedom of his soul, nature confines
the soul. Nature serves as a symbol for the captivity and death of the
soul. The black man that is lynched in the poem could not be free in
this society, and the girl he leaves behind mourns at the sight of the
tree. For her, the image of this tree brings anguish to the soul:

Way Down South in Dixie
 (break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
 To a cross roads tree.

The tree is the object on which this girl^s lover was hung. Nature
becomes a symbol for the burden of the anguish of the soul. Nature^s
role in this poem not only kills the young lover, but also suffocates
the soul of the young girl. Love is a naked shadow
 On a gnarled and naked tree

Nature bears witness to the evils of man, the sufferings of love, the
loss of a loved one to a brutal and inhumane death. Nature serves not
as a symbol of the burden of the freedom of the soul, but as a symbol
for the captivity and death of the soul. Here nature is the picture of
desolation, evil, and raw human pain. Although at first glance, Chopin
and Hughes seem to be two very different authors with different life
experiences and struggles. A closer look at their works reveals a
similarity. In The Awakening, nature^s intensity and power is depicted
in the ocean and water. Chopin contrasts the struggles and freedoms in
life through the imagery of nature; the joy experienced running through
tall grasses in a meadow to a frightening encounter with the unending
abyss of the ocean. Similarly, in Langston Hughes^ poetry, a Negro
speaks of his connection to rivers, deep in the earth, of the softness
of the sun, and yet he also speaks of the gnarled tree from which hangs
the body of a bruised, dead Negro. The imagery in these two works
appear to represent quite different human experiences, but a closer
examination reveals that they both represent the basic human struggle
that plagues the characters/speakers in these works. In these works,
the images of nature serves as a symbol of the fr! eedom of the soul,
yet simultaneously serving as a symbol for the burden of achieving that
freedom, and the anguish of the struggle. Both Chopin and Hughes use
nature in their works in the form of sweeping imagery, poignant
metaphors, and precise, powerful symbolism. The use of nature for this
purpose draws their characters/speakers to life and adds great depth to
their works. Nature not only represents humankind^s greatest bliss,
but also symbolizes our greatest enemy . . . the earth on which we


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