The Awakening explores one woman's desire to find and live fully within her true self. Her devotion to that purpose causes friction with her friends and family, and also conflicts with the dominant values of her time.
Edna Pontellier's story takes place in 1890s Louisiana, within the upper-class Creole society. Edna, her husband Léonce, and their two children are vacationing for the summer on Grand Isle, an island just off the Louisiana shore near New Orleans. They are staying at a pension, a sort of boarding house where each family has their own cottage but eat together in a main dining hall. Also staying at the pension is the Ratignolle family; Madame Ratignolle is a close friend of Edna's, although their philosophies and attitudes toward child rearing differ fundamentally. Madame Ratignolle is the epitome of a "mother-woman," gladly sacrificing a distinct personal identity to devote her entire being to the care of her children, husband, and household.
In contrast to Madame Ratignolle's character is Mademoiselle Reisz, a brilliant pianist also vacationing on Grand Isle. Although Mademoiselle Reisz offends almost everyone with her brutal assessments of others, she likes Edna, and they become friends. Mademoiselle Reisz's piano performance stirs Edna deeply, awakening her capacity for passion and engendering the process of personal discovery that Edna undertakes — almost accidentally — that summer.
Another Grand Isle vacationer is the young and charming Robert Lebrun. Robert devotes himself each summer season to a different woman, usually married, in a sort of mock romance that no one takes seriously. This summer, Edna is the object of his attentions.
As Edna begins the process of identifying her true self, the self that exists apart from the identity she maintains as a wife and mother, Robert unknowingly encourages her by indulging her emerging sensuality. Unexpectedly, Robert and Edna become intensely infatuated with each other by summer's end. The sudden seriousness of his romantic feelings for her compels him to follow through on his oft-stated intention to go to Mexico to seek his fortune.
Edna is distraught at his departure, remaining obsessed with him long after she and her family have returned to New Orleans. As a result of her continuing process of self-discovery, she becomes almost capricious in meeting her desires and needs, no longer putting appearances first. Always interested in art, she begins spending more time painting and sketching portraits than on household and social duties. Léonce is shocked by Edna's refusal to obey social conventions. He consults Dr. Mandelet, an old family friend, who advises Léonce to leave Edna alone and allow her to get this odd behavior out of her system.
Edna continues her friendships with Mademoiselle Reisz and the pregnant Madame Ratignolle. Mademoiselle Reisz receives letters from Robert, which she allows Edna to read. Meanwhile, as a result of her awakening sexuality Edna has an affair with Alcée Arobin, a notorious womanizer. Her heart remains with Robert, however, and she is delighted to learn that he is soon returning to New Orleans.
She has grown ever more distant from Léonce, and also become a much better artist, selling some of her work through her art teacher. These sales provide her a small income, so while Léonce and the children are out of town, she decides to move out of the mansion they share and into a tiny rental house nearby, called the "pigeon house" for its small size.
Much to her distress, she encounters Robert accidentally, when he comes to visit Mademoiselle Reisz while Edna happens to be there. She is hurt that he did not seek her out as soon as he returned. Over the next weeks he tries to maintain emotional and physical distance from Edna because she is a married woman, but she ultimately forces the issue by kissing him, and he confesses his love to her.
Edna tries to express to Robert that she is utterly indifferent to the social prohibitions that forbid their love; she feels herself to be an independent woman. Before she can explain herself, however, she is called away to attend Madame Ratignolle's labor and delivery, at the end of which Madame Ratignolle asks Edna to consider the effect of her adulterous actions on her children. Edna is greatly disturbed to realize that her little boys will be deeply hurt if she leaves Léonce for another man. To this point, she had considered only her own desires.
When she returns to the pigeon house, Robert is gone, having left a goodbye note. Crushed, she decides to kill herself, realizing that she cannot return to her former life with Léonce but is also unwilling to hurt her children personally or socially with the stigma of divorce or open adultery. The next morning she travels alone to Grand Isle, announces that she is going swimming, and drowns herself.