A middle-aged black woman named La Folle lives in a cabin past an abandoned field next to the bayou, and she has never visited the woods beyond her home. Her name was once Jacqueline, but she gained her nickname because she went a little mad after a frightening experience in her childhood when the young master P'tit Maître came bloodied into her mother's cabin after a skirmish in the woods. La Folle has never entirely returned to sanity, and she now lives alone, knowing nothing of life outside of the bayou besides what she imagines in her mind.
La Folle has never crossed the bayou, even when the mistress of Bellissime died. P'tit Maître now owns Bellissime and has multiple daughters and a son whom La Folle adores and calls Chéri. One summer, after Chéri has grown older and has gotten his own gun, the children and the cattle are able to cross the bayou on foot due to a mild drought and subsequent lowering of the water level. On Saturday afternoons, the fields are deserted while the men go to market and the women do domestic tasks.
While La Folle does her Saturday chores, she often thinks of Chéri, and when Chéri returns, he comes to her before going into the wood to hunt. He has bragged to her before about the game that he will bring to her. Today, however, she hears a shot of the rifle accompanied by a cry of distress, and she runs toward the sound.
She discovers Chéri on the ground, moaning that he had stumbled and accidentally shot himself in the leg. She wants to take him to Doctor Bonfils but is afraid to cross into the world of the bayou, so she shouts for help. Upon hearing no reply, she runs terrified into what is for her a new world.
Other people notice with surprise that she has crossed the bayou with Chéri, but they do not approach her because of her mad expression. Someone alerts P'tit Maître, and she dumps Chéri into his father's arms before fainting. When she awakens, she is again in her cabin and peacefully goes back to sleep, alleviating everyone's worries that she might die.
The next morning, she calmly wakes up, crosses the bayou, and walks with delight upon the new terrain, enjoying the beautiful flowers. No one is yet awake to observe her. She climbs to the veranda and becomes ecstatic as she observes the bayou.
La Folle knocks upon the door, and Chéri's mother answers, hiding her astonishment at seeing La Folle. La Folle calmly asks about Chéri's state, and the mother replies that he will recover easily. La Folle decides to wait on the veranda until Chéri wakes up, and she watches the sunrise with wonder and contentment.
The title of "Beyond the Bayou" is significant because it initially establishes the sense of boundary that is the centerpiece of La Folle's inner struggle. The main conflict in "Beyond the Bayou" is within a woman's mind as she suffers from her deeply ingrained fear of the unknown. As with a number of Chopin's short stories, such as "The Story of an Hour," the main character is a woman who discovers new aspects of her own independence and ability at a moment of crisis. Unlike Louise Mallard of "The Story of an Hour," however, La Folle is able to reclaim her liberty without any sudden setbacks, and the end of "Beyond the Bayou" features an image of triumph that associates a sunrise with La Folle's prospects for the future.
Chopin initially introduces the bayou as a distinct line that cordons off her land from the remainder of the world so that her universe consists of a single hut and an abandoned field. The lack of people in this area contrasts with our knowledge of the crowdedness that exists beyond the bayou. Consequently, La Folle commences as a somewhat pitiable character who no longer bears her true name because her unreasoning fear creates a self-enforced boundary that restricts her both physically and mentally. By the end of her story, however, the situation of exigency created by Chéri's accident has allowed her to cross the barrier of the unknown as well as the social barrier that separates her enslaved existence from the residence of the owners of Bellissime. When the sun rises, it visually and symbolically breaks the bayou's boundary line so that La Folle is no longer constrained.
The origin of La Folle's madness foreshadows the crisis that leads to the resolution both of the narrative and of La Folle's mental conflict. Kate Chopin describes La Folle's traumatic childhood experience as one where P'tit Maître returns bloodied to her mother's cabin while being pursued after a skirmish. Whereas a serious battle is implied in this incident, although the exact nature of the pursuers is never revealed, Chéri's misadventure is relatively trivial and involves a minor injury in which the ten-year-old shoots himself in the leg. The relative inconsequence of the accident contrasts with La Folle's reaction because she associates it with P'tit Maître's battle wounds and with her childhood fear.
Unlike many of Chopin's stories about the antebellum South, "Beyond the Bayou" explores the world of the Louisiana plantation not from the viewpoint of the privileged upper class, as in "A Respectable Woman," but rather from the opposite end of the social spectrum. Although "Beyond the Bayou" does not deal as specifically with racial issues as does "Désirée's Baby," the bayou's division of La Folle's world from the plantation owners' house implicitly indicates La Folle's separation from the white upper class. Over the course of the story, the owners of Bellissime only enter La Folle's domain twice, in both cases to ask for help in a time of need. Conversely, when La Folle finds her sanity, her choice to walk first toward the door of P'tit Maître's home suggests that La Folle has also asserted her equality as a human being. That she is a slave bears no input on her status as the story's heroine or on her newfound freedom.
A curious facet of La Folle's characterization is that her fear outweighs her physical stature, which exceeds that of most men on the plantation. Chopin's depiction of the effects of her fear uses auditory imagery, with a comparison of her heart's beating to the sound of a "muffled hammer" and an emphasis on her loud cries and unheeded voice. In this story, however, fear is counterbalanced by love, and love is eventually connected to La Folle's autonomy and mental independence. That love coincides with the ability to control one's life is not true in all of Chopin's works, which often feature love as destructive, as in "Désirée's Baby," or limiting, as in "The Story of an Hour." Yet, La Folle is fortunate, and her love for Chéri allows her to break her mental and physical boundaries.