Summary of the Novel
The Awakening begins in Grand Isle, where the Pontellier family is vacationing for the summer. Leonce Pontellier’s newspaper reading has been interrupted by the loud talking of the caged parrot so he returns to his own cottage. Edna Pontellier returns from bathing in the ocean with Robert Lebrun, and her husband criticizes her for bathing so late in the day. She and Robert share laughs over something that happened at the ocean, but Leonce is bored with the conversation. He leaves to go to a men’s club at a hotel called Klein’s. Robert stays with Edna.
When Mr. Pontellier returns late that night, he reprimands Edna for her neglect of the children. She begins to cry, feeling an “indescribable oppression.” The next day we meet Adele Ratignolle, who is pregnant and a classic “mother-woman.” Edna, Adele, and Robert spend the afternoon together, and Robert is very attentive to Edna; they later go swimming together.
At the ocean with Adele, Edna remembers the times she was in love and how she “accidentally” married Leonce. Adele warns Robert to stay away from Edna. Some weeks later, all the summer guests gather together for an evening’s entertainment. We are introduced to Edna’s love of music. At the end of the evening, everyone goes swimming and Robert walks Edna home. Later Edna defies Leonce and stays out in the hammock after he instructs her to go inside.
The next day Edna and Robert go to Mass together at Cheniere Caminada and spend the whole day together there. Some time later Robert announces that he is leaving for Mexico that night, and Edna tries to hide her feelings, from herself as much as from anyone else. After he is gone, she misses him very much.
At the beach one day, Edna tells Adele that although she would give her life for her children, she wouldn’t give herself. Adele doesn’t understand.
After the summer, they go home to New Orleans, and Edna starts to forego her usual social engagements, for which she is reprimanded by Leonce. She begins taking long, solitary walks. She has lost interest in her home and family and takes up painting. She visits Mademoiselle Reisz and reads a letter from Robert, which makes her cry.
Leonce is worried about his wife and talks to Dr. Mandelet who advises him to let her have her way and maybe it will pass. After Edna’s father comes to stay for a while, Leonce and the children go away, and Edna is happily left alone. She paints, reads, and visits with friends. One of her new friends is Alcee Arobin, who is known for being a womanizer. They often go to the track together, and begin to spend time alone together in the evening.
While her family is still away, Edna decides to move out of her house to a smaller one around the corner. One day she goes to visit Mademoiselle Reisz and learns that Robert is coming home; she admits that she loves him. That night she begins her affair with Alcee Arobin and says of his kiss, “It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded.” Later she is disappointed that the response wasn’t brought on by love. The night before she moves, Edna has a dinner party, and Alcee stays the night.
One day Edna goes to visit Mademoiselle Reisz and finds Robert there. She is hurt that he has not called on her since his return. He dines with her at her house that night but does not call or come visit after that. She spends more and more time with Alcee, although she still longs for Robert.
Luckily Edna runs into Robert accidentally, and he goes to her home with her. They finally both declare their love, and kiss, but then Edna has to leave to be with Adele Ratignolle, who is giving birth. When she returns, Robert is gone.
The novel ends with Edna leaving New Orleans and going back to Grand Isle. Shortly after her arrival there, she swims out as far as she can into the ocean, with no strength left to return.
Estimated Reading Time
The average reader should be able to complete The Awakening in four to five hours. The short chapters make it easier to read, and certain chapters can be grouped together to aid the reader in understanding the story.
Chapters I through VI take place in Grand Isle and introduce the major conflicts of the novel and set the tone for Edna’s awakening.
Chapters VII through XVI are the remaining chapters that take place in Grand Isle. Here we see Edna’s various awakenings set in motion.
Chapters XVII through XXX take place in New Orleans. Here we see significant growth in both Edna’s rebellion and her resulting conflicts.
Chapters XXXI to XXXVIII also take place in New Orleans and are about Edna’s independence.
Chapter XXXIX should be read alone. The story moves back to Grand Isle, and it is the resolution of the novel.