When the book opens, Edna Pontellier is an obedient wife and mother vacationing at Grand Isle with her family. While there, however, Edna become close to a young man named Robert Lebrun. Before they act on their mutual romantic interest in each other, Robert leaves for Mexico. Edna is lonely without his companionship, but shortly after her return to New Orleans (where she usually lives with her family), she picks up the male equivalent of a mistress. Although she does not love Alcee Arobin, he awakens various sexual passions within her.
Concurrent to Edna’s sexual awakening is her determination for independence. Instead of spending her days concerned with household matters, Edna pursues her interest in painting. Rather than depending financially on her husband, Edna moves into a house of her own. By the time Robert returns, professing his love for Edna and his desire to someday marry her, Edna can no longer handle societal strictures – particularly marriage. Without finishing the conversation about their future, Robert leaves Edna. Heartbroken, she returns to Grand Isle. Once there, she swims far out to sea and presumably drowns.