The story of Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of The Awakening, rests significantly on the choice made by Chopin is have the story set in Creole New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century. By making this choice, she is able to use the atmosphere and societal expectations of the time and place as an immediate impediment to Edna, who is not Creole born, but someone who has married into this society.
The novel opens during the late summer when the upper class of Creole soceity are at summer cottages near the shore and away from the confines and heat of the city. The atmosphere is freer and more relaxed. The children and adults play, swim and socialize. It is through these early scenes and chapters that the reader learns a bit about the Creole society and "mentality." We learn about their concept of "mother-woman" and how these people view the role of women to primarily be "ministering angels" to their children first and their husbands as well. We learn about their free way with one another -- very open, affectionate, and uncensored. But there is also a high moral expectation that comes from the Catholic background, and it is expected that married people will act only in accordance with their marriage vows. It is SO expected that Adele (the perfect Creole woman) says that "the Creole husband is never jealous; with him the gangrene (dangerous) passion (jealousy) is one which has become dwarfed by disuse." Edna's friendship with Robert is of no concern to her husband.
In addition to this "social" aspect of setting, Chopin also does a wonderful job with the physical setting. The beauty of the sunny beaches and the heat of day make the reader feel they are there. The "silver moon that turns to cooper" makes the reader feel the change in the mood during the evening of the party and the late-night swimming. The descriptions of the sea as "seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring ... in solitude" makes the reader feel as if they are in the water themselves -- luxuriating in its mystery. Once the summer is over and all the characters return to New Orleans proper, it is established that the Pontelliers live on the nicest street in town and that they move in the best of social circles. Each person's home is described in enough detail to suggest how the home reflects its owner -- thus Mademoiselle Reisz's apartment is small and inconvenient, just as she is odd and disagreeable.
The novel is rich in its use of imagery, symbolism, and metaphor so as to paint a picture of the physical and emotional setting and atmosphere of the novel.