One autumn night, four Confederate soldiers in worn, gray uniforms are encamped on a hill as they wait for their orders. One man heats food in a tin cup, and two other men are resting away from the fire, while Edmond sits with his shirt unbuttoned as he tries to read a letter. One of the resting men asks about the object around Edmond's neck, but Edmond does not answer.
The men speculate that the object is a picture of Edmond, while Nick, the man with a tin cup, speculates that it is a magical Catholic to protect Edmond, who is French and who has not been injured after a year and a half of war. Edmond jokingly agrees. Homesick, he lies on his back and thinks of the spring day when Octavia said goodbye to him. She had given him her locket, which has images of her parents and the date of their marriage.
Edmond falls asleep and dreams that Octavie brings him a letter while he is embarrassed at his poor condition. He also dreams of a snake that tries to strangle him until it eludes him as he tries to grab it. He wakes up to a commotion and the beginning of dawn, as well as Nick's yelling.
A wise but confused blackbird wonders what is occurring, thinking that the men must be children playing a game, and he decides to watch the battle, which lasts until nightfall. Finally understanding what has occurred, the bird comes to the now quiet plain. On the plain, a black man accompanies a clergyman who is administering rites to the dead and dying, while the wounded have been taken away. One of the dead soldiers is a boy with a locket around his neck, and the tearful priest takes the locket as he prays for the dead.
Later, on a spring day in Louisiana, Octavie and her neighbor Judge Pillier take a morning ride in a coach. Octavie is plainly dressed and hides her locket under her clothes. She holds it in this way because she now values the locket for its association with an important event in her life. She has read many times the priest's letter that accompanied the return of the locket, and she again reads his description of Edmond's death as she mentally compares the beautiful spring with the horrible death of her beloved.
After her moment of despair, resignation returns to Octavie's mind, and she decides to be like Aunt Tavie, who has grown "old and quiet and sad." She feels a sense of loss, but part of her wants to enjoy her youth. When she draws her veil closer to her face, Judge Pillier, who is also Edmond's father, requests that she remove the veil, for it contrasts too much with the day's glory. Pillier asks that she never again put it on. Octavie feels hurt, considering that he has somehow kept her from sharing in their mutual grief, but she obeys.
The coach leaves the road and enters a meadow toward Judge Pillier's house. With agitation, he tells her that miracles seem ready to happen on such a magnificent day, yet she looks at him with need and fear. When they approach the house, she sees a familiar face. Suddenly Edmond is holding her! She again feels alive.
Later, she asks him about the locket. He explains that he had thought he lost the locket in the tumult of the fight but that someone must have stolen it. She thinks of the priest's description of the dead soldier's expression of supplication. Edmond thinks of the other man at the campfire who had lain away from the fire and had said nothing during the conversation about the locket.
As with many short stories, the power of "The Locket" derives from the plot twist that occurs at the end of the narrative, for the reversal destroys both our assumptions and those of the characters within the tale. Throughout "The Locket," Chopin seeks to deceive as she hints that Edmond rather than the fourth man at the encampment is the one who died in the Civil War. She succeeds so fully that upon reading the final revelation, many readers might choose to return to the beginning of the story to review who the dead man might have been, to reaffirm that a fourth man was at the campfire that night. That man first appears "lying in the obscurity," suggesting his hidden nature, and he next appears as a dream serpent before he is eventually revealed as a "mere boy" without mystery or evil intent.
In writing "The Locket," Chopin refers to dual motifs of love and war that serve to connect the two vignettes that comprise the structure of the story. Part I's atmosphere of horror and destruction in the war contrasts easily with the springtime background of Part II, but they are intimately connected because of the tie between Edmond and Octavie. Edmond feels the connection in Part I from his side, and Octavie feels it in Part II from hers. Edmond, who lives in a drab encampment and who fights in the chaos of an unexpected battle, nevertheless retains a memory of Octavie's love, and although Octavie lives in a beautiful world of renewal and growth far away from the war, she is dressed in black mourning clothes, held back by the locket and its reminder of Edmond's presumed death.
Chopin portrays the days of the Civil War as particularly horrible because the war leads to premature aging among those who should be young and hopeful. The locket thief, Edmond, and Octavie are all young and in the prime of life. Yet, the unnamed locket thief dies while Edmond seems dead and Octavie herself wears mourning clothes during the most beautiful time of the year and is on the verge of resolving to live out her life in mourning. War causes the young to confront border between life and death, while older men, such as the priest and Judge Pillier, paradoxically preserve life, whether by praying for people’s souls or by trying to revive life in the young, as does the judge for Octavie. The older generation, at least, can claim a broader perspective on suffering and death and the existential need to move forward despite experiences of profound loss. However, the older generation ultimately has little positive effect or even a negative effect on Octavie, and only Edmond's miraculous return restores Octavie's happiness.
The setting of "The Locket" is particularly important because it foreshadows Edmond's unanticipated and figurative resurrection. Chopin refuses to maintain an elegiac tone in the story and repeatedly interrupts Octavie's melancholy thoughts with a description of the liveliness of the spring day. Having supposedly died in the previous autumn, Edmond becomes a figure of rebirth that parallels the renewal of nature after a fading autumn and a cold winter. In Chopin's other story "Ma'ame Pélagie," the years after the Civil War serve to age her protagonist, but in this tale, the end of the Civil War ultimately marks rejuvenation and hope. Nevertheless, while these people can rejoice in their reunion, the family of the dead solider has no such luck. As for the wise bird, Chopin appears to be asking us to reexamine human war from an outsider's perspective; if it did not have such horrific results, it would seem like a game. The bird's life will be about the same regardless of which side wins.
Near the end of Part II, the happiness of the spring setting seems to suddenly and finally infuse both Judge Pillier and Octavie with a sense of dream-like anticipation, as though Judge Pillier's request that Octavie remove her veil allow both characters to understand the message given to them by nature. Pillier invokes a religious sentiment when he says, "Does it not seem to you, Octavie, that heaven might for once relent and give us back our dead?," and although the previous representation of religion in the form of the priest proves to be mistaken about Edmond's fate, Edmond's arrival is in a sense entirely miraculous. Octavie thinks of him as "her dead Edmond; her living Edmond," and this phrase accurately conveys the feeling of instantaneous revival that accompanies his return to life. Her abiding desire is love, the joyful bonds of a restored relationship, quite the opposite of the married women desiring freedom whom we sometimes find in Chopin's stories.