The novel opens with Léonce Pontellier sitting on the porch of his seaside summer home in Grand Isle, near New Orleans. He and his wife Edna are renting a cottage from Madame Lebrun. Edna and Madame Lebrun's son Robert join Mr. Pontellier, having spent the afternoon swimming together. Edna and Robert try to relate an amusing experience to Mr. Pontellier, but he is not part of the joke and fails to share in their mirth.
In the very first chapter, Chopin hints at the impending divide between Mr. and Mrs. Pontellier. Away from his city-based business, Mr. Pontellier is presented as somewhat out of place at the ocean cottage. He is irritated by Madame Lebrun's pet birds, tries to assauge his boredom by reading a day-old newspaper, doesn't engage in fun activities with his wife or Robert, and prefers to spend his time playing billiards at the hotel. He chooses not to participate in the daily activities that his wife and Robert so thoroughly enjoy, but he does so with a complete lack of concern. Mr. Pontellier doesn't seem to care that much about what his wife does, and this attitude only intensifies as the novel progresses.
The rift between Mr. and Mrs. Pontellier is closely tied to setting. In this chapter, we are introduced to the ocean setting that soon acquires a symbolic meaning in Mrs. Pontellier's mind--that of romance, sexual desire, indolence, and most importantly, Robert Lebrun. The ocean is constantly hazy, suffused with deep colors, and interminably hot; it stands in direct contrast to the cold city, which represents the world of rules and constraints, work and responsibility. At the beach, everyone behaves differentlyslower, calmer, and with less regard to social convention. As the novel progresses and Mrs. Pontellier moves back to the city, she will struggle to reconcile the unique vision of freedom offered to her at the beach with the demands made of her by society.
Stuck in the world of business, Mr. Pontellier not only fails to appreciate the beach, but also treats his wife as a possession, as something else that he can acquire. When she rejoins him a little sunburned, he looks "at his wife as one looks at a piece of personal property which has suffered some damage." He does not think of his wife as an equal and cannot (or will not) participate in her world; both problems will lead eventually to marital infidelity.
As this first chapter suggests, Mr. and Mrs. Pontellier will become increasingly irrelevant to each other, as Mrs. Pontellier becomes intoxicated by Robert and the sensuous ocean atmosphere, while Mr. Pontellier loses himself in the male sphere of business and social obligations.
The narrator describes Mrs. Pontellier and Robert, both of whom are young, happy, and good-looking. They both have the same color of brown hair. The two talk excitedly with each other about nothing in particular and are just happy to be together. Robert mentions future plans to go to Mexico, and Mrs. Pontellier describes her childhood in Kentucky. Robert has come to Grand Isle for every summer that he can remember, and only recently has his mother begun to rent out the summer cottages as her main source of income. Mrs. Pontellier has no specific ethnic heritage, although she does have a trace of French blood. Mrs. Pontellier goes to bed and is a little unhappy that her husband has not yet returned from playing billiards. Robert plays with the Pontellier's children for a while.
Mrs. Pontellier and Robert are carefree, young, and innocent. They have no ulterior motives in being together and are just pleased to have found someone as engaging and responsive as the other. Their relationship stands in striking contrast to that of Mr. and Mrs. Pontellier; it is one of mutual respect and interest. Robert and Mrs. Pontellier treat each other as real, exciting people, rather than as mere possessions.
However, they do have one major difference between them. While Robert and all the other people at the ocean community are French Creole and grew up in Louisiana, Mrs. Pontellier grew up in the Protestant South. Although all her neighbors are welcoming towards her, Mrs. Pontellier is nevertheless an outsider, and she is not entirely familiar with Creole customs and social conventions. Her cultural background will cause her to react to certain situations a little differently than her neighbors would in the same situation.
Returning from the hotel late at night, Mr. Pontellier wakes up his wife and wants to relate the fun he has just engaged in. He becomes resentful when his tired wife shows little interest, and he checks on their two sons, thinks that one of them has a fever, and returns to scold Mrs. Pontellier for not being a good enough mother. After her husband falls asleep, Mrs. Pontellier goes outside and begins to sob. However, she feels no particular resentment towards her husband, just an overwhelming sadness, and the next morning all is forgotten. Mr. Pontellier is excited to return to the city and while there, sends her a huge box of delicacies.
This chapter makes explicit the divide between Mr. Pontellier's male world of activity, work, and social responsibility and Mrs. Pontellier's female sphere of domesticity and passive dependence. Mr. Pontellier returns from his night of drinking and gaming and lays on the bedside table the tokens of successful masculinity: bank notes, silver coin, keys, knife, and handkerchief. Similarly, the "anecdotes and bits of news and gossip" are artifacts which represent the outside, male world, but they have no relevance to Mrs. Pontellier, who simply wants to go to sleep.
Frustrated that his wife shows little interest in his sphere of work, Mr. Pontellier then proceeds to attack her for being unsuccessfulunmotherlyin her own. In doing so, he implies that as a woman, she must necessarily limit herself to domestic duties, and at the same time, that she herself lacks certain maternal traits to do the job well. His attitude indicates a desire to control his wife, rather than any real concern for the heath of his sons.
Despite Mr. Pontellier's insensitive remarks, Mrs. Pontellier continues to think of him as a good husband. However, she bases her opinion on his success in the outside world of business and on his ability to provide them with money and luxuriously objects. Paradoxically, it is his preoccupation with this realm of worldly success that prevents Mr. Pontellier from treating her as a real, equal human being and that leads to Mrs. Pontellier's growing unhappiness.