The novel opens with the Pontellier family vacationing on Grand Isle at a resort on the Gulf of Mexico managed by Madame Leburn and her two sons, Robert and Victor. The Pontellier family is comprised of Léonce Pontellier (a businessman of Acadian heritage) and Edna (his twenty-eight year old wife). They have two sons, Etienne and Raoul who do not feature prominently in the plot and who are largely symbols of Edna's proscribed existence.
Edna spends most of her time with her close friend Adèle Ratignolle. In a boisterious and cheery manner, Adèle reminds Edna of her duties as a wife and mother. At Grand Isle, Edna eventually forms a connection with Robert Lebrun, a charming and earnest young man who actively seeks Edna's attention (and affections). They start to fall deeply in love, but Robert, sensing the doomed nature of any relationship that would develop between them, flees to Mexico under the guise of pursuing a nameless business venture.
At this point in the novel, the narrative focus shifts to Edna's complex and shifting emotions as she reconciles her filial duties with her desire to be with Robert and her desire for social freedom.
The summer vacation over, Edna and the family return to New Orleans. Gradually, Edna begins to take an active role in her own happiness and reassesses her personal priorities. She starts to isolate herself from New Orleans society and withdraw from some of the duties traditionally associated with motherhood. Léonce eventually calls in a doctor to diagnose her, fearing she is losing her mental faculties. The doctor advises Léonce to let her be.
Léonce decides to leave Edna home as he travels to New York City on business. The children are sent to stay with his mother, leaving Edna alone at the house for an extended period. This gives Edna physical and emotional room to breathe and think over various aspects of her life. While her husband is still in New York, Edna decides moves out of her house and into a small bungalow nearby. During this period of transition she begins an abortive affair with Alcée Arobin, a persistent suitor with a reputation for being free with his affections. It's the first time in the novel Edna is shown as a sexual being, but the affair proves awkward and emotionally fraught.
The other person to whom Edna reaches out during this period of solitude is Mademoiselle Reisz, a gifted recitalist whose playing is renowned throughout New Orleans but who maintains a generally hermetic existence. At a party earlier in the novel, Edna is profoundly moved by Mlle. Reisz's playing. Mlle. Reisz is in contact with Robert while he is in Mexico, receiving letters from him regularly. Edna begs her to reveal their contents, which she does, proving to Edna that Robert is thinking about her.
Eventually Robert returns to New Orleans. At first aloof (and finding excuses not to be near Edna), he eventually confesses his passionate love for her. He admits that the business trip to Mexico was an excuse to get away from a relationship that would never work.
Edna is called away to help Adèle with a difficult childbirth. Adèle pleads with Edna to think of what she would be turning her back on if she did not behave appropriately. When Edna returns home, she finds a note from Robert stating that he has left and will not be returning.Edna is devastated. She goes immediately back to Grand Isle, where she first met Robert Lebrun. It is also where she learned to swim earlier in the novel, an episode that was both exhilarating and terrifying, and an episode that perfectly encapsulated the conflicting emotions she wrestled with during the course of the novel. The novel ends with Edna allowing herself to be overtaken by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
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