In Kate Chopin's The Awakening, the protagonist Edna Pontellier learns to think of herself as an autonomous human being and rebels against social norms by leaving her husband Leónce and having an affair. The first half of the novel takes place in Grand Isle, an island off the coast of Louisiana. Over the summer it is inhabited by upper-class Creole families from New Orleans who go there to escape from the heat and to relax by the ocean. During the week, the women and children stay on the island, while the men return to the city to work.
During the summer, Edna Pontellier meets a young gallant named Robert Lebrun, whose mother rents out the cottages on the island. The two spend almost all their time together, and Edna greatly enjoys his company, especially since her husband is generally preoccupied with business. Due to Robert's constant presence, Edna starts to experience a change within herself: she begins to develop a sense of herself as a whole person, with unique wants, interests, and desires. She realizes that she is not content to be simply a wife and a mother, and she begins to assert herself to her husband.
Edna's moments of self-discovery are closely tied to the ocean. At her great moment of awakening, she suddenly learns how to swim, after being frustrated in her efforts before. She and Robert also spend a lot of time in and near the ocean. One day they take a spontaneous day trip to another island in a boat, and Edna undergoes a metaphorical rebirth when she falls asleep for hours on the island.
When Robert realizes that he and Edna are becoming too close, he suddenly departs the island and goes to Vera Cruz for business prospects. Edna is upset when Robert leaves with only a few hours' notice, and she becomes depressed after he leaves. That summer Edna also befriends the pregnant Madame Ratignolle, who is the epitome of maternity, and Mademoiselle Reisz, an eccentric, unmarried old woman who can make Edna weep by playing the piano.
The Pontelliers return to the city, where Leónce busies himself with making money and purchasing extravagant possessions for their home on Esplanade Street. At first Edna settles into her usual routine, receiving callers on Tuesday afternoons and accompanying her husband to plays and musical events on other nights. Soon, however, she stops taking callers, much to her husband's displeasure. She begins to take up painting and starts behaving in what her husband considers an uncharacteristic manner. A little bit confused, Leónce goes to Doctor Mandelet, an old family friend to ask for advice. The doctor advises him to leave his wife alone, and even though he suspects that Edna may be in love with another man, he says nothing.
Edna is simply deciding to do what she wants, regardless of what her husband or society may think. She continues to think about Robert, and on some days she is happy and on some days she is sad. Edna discovers that Robert has been writing letters to Mademoiselle Reisz about her, and she starts to visit her frequently to read the letters and to listen to her friend play the piano.
Edna's father, the Colonel, comes to visit the Pontelliers for awhile. Although Edna is not particularly close to her father, she finds him entertaining and devotes all her energies to him when he is there. They leave on bad terms, however, when Edna refuses to attend her sister's wedding in Kentucky. After the Colonel's departure, Leónce and the children also leave Edna on her own. Leónce has extended business in New York, and the children go to stay with their grandmother in the country.
Edna enjoys her new-found freedom. She eats solitary, peaceful dinners, visits her friends, and does quite a bit of painting. She also goes to the racetracks to bet on horses and begins spending a lot of time with Alcée Arobin, a charming young man who has the reputation of being a philanderer. She wins a great deal of money gambling, and her relationship with Arobin starts to border on the sexual.
While visiting Mademoiselle Reisz one day, Edna decides that she is going to move out of the Pontellier house on Esplanade Street. With her gambling wins and the sale of her paintings, she has enough to support herself and intends to move to a smaller "pigeon house" just around the corner. She wants to be independent and doesn't want her husband to have any sort of claim on her. That same day she hears that Robert is returning to New Orleans, and she admits for the first time that she is in love with him.
Later that day Edna sleeps with Arobin for the first time and feels a medley of emotions, but no shame. In a few days she throws a small dinner party to celebrate her birthday and her moving out of the house. The event is very pleasant and elaborate, and the guests all have a good time. Edna enjoys her new abode: it makes her feel free from the usual social constraints. She continues her affair with Arobin, yet she does so without forming any real attachment to him.
One day she runs into Robert at Mademoiselle Reisz' apartment, and their meeting is somewhat strained and awkward. Robert keeps himself at a distance, much to Edna's frustration, and afterwards she is alternately happy and sadunsure whether or not he is in love with her. She runs into him a few days later at a suburban garden, and he returns home with her. While he is sitting with his eyes closed, Edna gives him a kiss, to which he passionately responds. They profess their love to each other, and Robert expresses his desire to marry her. Suddenly, a message from Madame Ratignolle arrives, saying that she is in labor. Edna has promised to go to her, and she leaves Robert, who promises to await her return.
Madame Ratignolle is in great pain, and Edna masochistically remains with her, even though she feels that it is torture to do so. Before Edna leaves, Madame Ratignolle warns her that she must always consider her children in whatever she does. Edna is slightly depressed at her friend's words, but is excited to rejoin Robert. Sadly, however, she finds Robert gone forever.
The novel closes with Edna returning to Grand Isle. Having already decided on her course of action, she walks down to the beach and stands naked in the sun. Without really thinking, she begins to swim out into the ocean. She thinks triumphantly about how she has escaped her children and their claim on her and continues to swim until she is exhausted. Memories of her childhood flash before her eyes as she slowly drowns.