In The Awakening, Edna Pontellier comes to the realization that there is more to life than marriage and family, which she was taught would give her fulfillment. For her, her supposedly ideal life as wife and mother has become a stifling, unsatisfying existence. Unlike her friend Adèle, she is slowing despairing in her conventional existence.
When Edna meets, falls in love with, and begins an affair with Robert Lebrun during her vacation on Grand Isle, her awakening to her own potential begins to blossom. On Grand Isle, she begins to feel the power of her body and her sexuality as she swims in the sea and makes love with Robert. She learns, through her interactions with the Creole women, that it is possible to express, rather than repress, her emotions. As she listens to and reacts to the pianist Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna awakens to the idea of painting emotionally and expressively.
These changes travel with Edna back to New Orleans and her stifling life there with her husband. He fears she has become mentally unhinged for pursuing her individuality and expects her to subordinate her own needs to his business interests, such as by entertaining. When he leaves for a business trip, she feels she can breathe again, buys her own small house, and pursues another affair.
Ultimately, however, Edna decides she is trapped by her society after Adèle dies in childbirth and Robert, too conventional to take the kind of risks Edna embraces, leaves her. Edna, facing a society unable to understand her, commits suicide. Chopin's novel pleads with her society to offer an alternative to marriage and childbirth or metaphoric and literal suicide for a woman.