The story begins as Edna Pontellier, her husband Léonce and their children are vacationing at one of the Lebrun’s Grand Isle cottages. Edna’s husband spends most of his time away for business and when he isn’t working he prefers the company of his friends at nearby hotel called Klein’s. Edna as a result spends most of her time with her friends Adèle Ratignolle and more importantly Robert Lebrun.
Robert and Edna’s friendship begins to progress as they both enjoy each other’s company and find it easy to talk about anything from the past, to future plans. When Mr. Pontellier returns home, he expects Edna to greet him excitingly and attentively but she answers in a manner that does not please him. As a result, Mr. Pontellier takes offense and criticizes Edna for her negligence of him and their children as he claims one of them had a fever.
Edna breaks down into tears as she begins to feel the contrast between her relationship with Robert and her relationship with her husband. By the morning the pretense of a happy family is back up again as Edna and her children say goodbye to Mr. Pontellier as he leaves for business. He later sends many gifts to his wife to appease her, and all her friends marvel over his generosity.
Although Edna accepts the compliments and even compliments her husband herself, she does so in a manner of sarcasm that proves their quarrel had indeed changed her and further began her awakening from the unfulfilling life she lives.
Edna is also awakened to the difference between her and the other mothers on Grand Isle. Especially Adèle Ratingolle who is extremely devoted, selfless and protective of her children. Edna in contrast is quite temperamental in terms of her affection towards her children. That being said, Edna still maintains the pretense and follows the accepted norms and social conventions of how a woman and mother should behave.
The artistic, self-gratifying side of Edna begins to show quite early on as she chooses to draw rather than sew children’s clothes like Madame Ratignolle. Meanwhile Robert begins to physically gesture to something more than friendship but Edna asserts her control as she chooses to ignore his subtle flirtations.
Edna goes to the beach with Madame Ratignolle where she confesses her lack of affection towards her husband and the temperamental way in which she loves her children as Madame Ratignolle consoles her. Upon hearing her confessions, Madame Ratignolle warns Robert to stay away from Edna as she may take him seriously.
A while later, Madame Lebrun throws a party filled with guests who preform art that is pretentious, boring and stereotypically conventional. That is until Robert invites an old spinster named Mademoiselle Reisz to play piano. Edna is moved by the passionate and sincere music and begins to cry.
Mademoiselle Reisz’s music causes an awakening in Edna. After the performance Robert invites the guests to the beach, and after a summer of trying to learn to swim, Edna is brave and courageous enough to take a dive in the infinite sea. Edna and Robert talk for a while and Edna stays out and even disobeys her husband’s orders as he tries to convince her to come inside.
That night Edna sleeps badly and ends up contacting Robert the next morning. They both have breakfast and take a boat to mass shortly after. While on the trip Edna grows weak and tired and so Robert takes her to the house of Madame Antoine. Edna sleeps and wakes up to find Madame Antoine had prepared a meal for her, she eats while exchanging conversations with Robert. Madame Antoine later comes home and shares many stories with Edna and Robert until it’s time for them to go back to Grand Isle.
After their wonderful night, Edna comes back to Grand Isle to find that her husband had sets off for business. Later Edna finds out by accident from the vacationers that Robert is leaving to Mexico and he comes to say goodbye a while later. Upon Robert’s departure, Edna realizes that she harbors intense and passionate feelings for him and the idea of a future without him begins to terrify her.
After Robert’s departure, Edna’s awakening still continues although with an empty space that only he can fill. She begins to swim and draw more often, but constantly finds herself missing Robert. Edna constantly visits Madame Lebrun who talks to her about her son and shows her his things which in a way makes Edna feel closer to Robert. However to Edna’s disappointment, the correspondences that Robert sends to his mother contain no mention of her whatsoever.
Once the Pontelliers return home to New Orleans, Edna’s awakening begins to surface as she begins to steer away from the conventions that bind her. She stops taking the calls she normally does and instead goes out. Edna also abandons the household dress code as she doesn’t wear her conventional Tuesday clothes.
Her husband takes offense to his wife’s rebellion and leaves the house to eat at the club. Edna continues to disobey her husband from then on and goes to have dinner with Adèle Ratignolle and her husband. The idea of marriage begins to repulse Edna as she sees the harmonious marriage of the Ratignolles and the submissiveness of Adèle.
Edna continues to do as she pleases and continues in the rebellion against her husband. She paints most of the time and begins her emotional awakening as she feels sad and happy freely without any boundaries or social conventions to prevent her from feeling any certain way.
Edna resumes contact with Mademoiselle Reisz who invites her to visit in the city. Edna later finds out that Mademoiselle Reisz has letters from Robert and convinces her to read them. To her delight, Robert mentions Edna in most of his letters and she cries as she reads each one.
Meanwhile Mr. Pontellier visits a doctor to talk about Edna’s unusual behavior. The doctor advises him to leave his wife alone for a while and to consult with him the following week. That week Edna’s father comes shopping for his daughter’s wedding gift and has a lovely dinner with her along with the doctor. After that, Edna and her father argue over her refusal to go to her sister’s wedding, and as usual Mr. Pontellier makes up for any sort of inconvenience with expensive gifts.
Mr. Pontellier departs for a long business trip, and her children depart to their grandmother’s house. When Edna is alone she experiences a newfound freedom and relief. She begins to enjoy the little things in her life a bit more and uses her free time to paint and expand her knowledge by studying and reading and betting on horses.
Edna also becomes involved with different people such as the seductive Alcée Arobin and the placid Mrs. Highcamp. Alcée Arobin becomes infatuated with Edna and confesses his feelings towards her and they begin to spend a lot of time together as she shows him her paintings.
One day Edna tells Mademoislle Reisz that she wishes to leave her home and become independent from her husband and does so with inheritance and money she gained by selling her paintings. Her husband agrees to her demands and starts reconstructing their house as an alibi for his wife’s absence. On one of her visits to Mademoislle Reisz, Edna learns that Robert does not write to her because he loves her. On that same night her and Alcée share a kiss that leaves her awakened yet confused.
Edna throws a party before moving and invites only the people she wishes to. A while after that, Edna visits Mademoiselle Reisz’s home only to run into Robert. Edna is upset by the fact that Robert had been back for days before and hadn’t contacted her. He walks her home and refuses her invitation for dinner at first, but succumbs to her demands at last. They talk about what they did when they were apart and admit that they both often thought about that summer at Grand Isle. Edna is pleased with her rekindled friendship with Robert, and only sees Alcée when Robert fails to show up.
Edna finds solitude at a café where she usually goes but bumps into Robert and they awkwardly share dinner as she asks him why he didn’t come to see her. Their day ends as she invites him to her home. Edna leaves the room for a while and comes back to kiss Robert. He responds by wrapping his arms around her as he confesses his reasons for staying away were only because he loves her and wants her to belong to him.
Edna laughs at the thought and says she belongs to no one but herself. Their reunion is interrupted with a call from Madame Ratignolle who is having a baby. Edna rushes to help her and witnesses her giving birth and is disgusted by the cruelty of motherhood. Upon her return she finds Robert gone and a letter saying “ Goodbye because I love you”.
The novel ends when Edna returns to Grand Isle for one last time as she laments with emptiness on her lost love, her children and her husband. She swims herself to exhaustion and drowns to her death.
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