The Awakening deals with the sexual awakening of a woman who has led the conventional life of an upper-middle-class wife and mother until the age of twenty-eight, then finds herself feeling so frustrated and suffocated that she is willing to defy the conventions of Louisiana Creole society to gain spiritual independence. She gradually abandons housekeeping, social visits, entertaining at home, and all the duties of a woman of her station. Defiantly, she begins to lead a bohemian lifestyle and to exercise freedom of choice in matters of sex.
The novel is divided into thirty-nine short chapters, each consisting of a single significant scene. Most of the story is told through the viewpoint of Edna Pontellier, an exceptionally sensitive and observant woman who can see into the characters of other people. The scenes not only present the various characters’ personalities but also paint a picture of homes, furnishings, clothing, servants, entertainment, and other aspects of life in the late nineteenth century.
The first scenes take place at a summer resort on Grand Isle near New Orleans. City dwellers come to escape the city heat, but even on the island the subtropical heat and humidity are oppressive. The women and children remain on Grand Isle throughout the summer, while most of the men come over only on weekends and return to the city to conduct business.
A few younger men have no pressing business matters to which to attend. These bachelors amuse themselves by flirting blatantly with the married women. This behavior is tolerated in Creole society because the code of sexual morality is so strict that it is taken for granted that the relationships will remain platonic. Edna Pontellier, who is the most attractive woman on the island, is courted by the handsome young Robert Lebrun with the benign approval of Edna’s husband. A combination of factors, however, turns their affair from a game into something more complex and potentially disastrous.
Once Edna falls in love with Robert, she experiences an adverse reaction to her husband. She realizes that she has never truly loved him and can barely stand to continue having intimate marital relations with him. Edna’s character transformation is described in detail; it is also dramatized through Edna’s overt behavior.
In one nighttime scene, Leonce keeps calling to his wife to come to bed. It was impossible for authors in Kate Chopin’s day to discuss sex in explicit terms; however, Edna’s repeated refusals to her husband’s entreaties make it clear what is happening. She knows that he wants to have sexual intercourse and, for the first time in their marriage, she is refusing to allow herself to be used.
Robert is in love with Edna but not so deeply that he is willing to make any extraordinary sacrifices. Instead, he goes to Mexico to pursue a lucrative business opportunity. Robert steadfastly avoids communicating with her by mail because he realizes that such correspondence would exceed the bounds of social propriety.
Edna accepts the advances of another young man, Alcee Arobin, although she senses that he is only intoxicated by her beauty and does not understand her as a fellow human being. Here again, the author is unable to describe how far their relationship goes, but she provides strong suggestions that Edna and Alcee become illicit lovers.
By this time, Edna finds her husband so repulsive that she insists on moving out of their home and setting up her own household, providing her with better opportunities to see Arobin. She is becoming a successful artist, and her sketches and paintings are bringing in enough money to allow her to declare her independence.
When Robert returns, Edna finds that she is even more in love with him and that Arobin means little more to her than her own husband. Robert still loves her but lacks her courage and contempt for public opinion. At the last moment, when she is prepared to run away with him, she finds a note stating that he cannot bring himself to violate her marital bonds and to disgrace himself in Creole society. Edna’s disappointing experiences with her husband, Arobin, and Lebrun have plunged her into a state of depression. Feeling that life is no longer worth living, she takes off all of her clothes and swims out into the ocean until she becomes exhausted and drowns.