When the book opens, Edna Pontellier is an obedient wife and mother vacationing at Grand Isle with her family. Everything seems hunky-dory: it's a beautiful vacation spot, the kiddos are cute, the husband is attentive, and Edna is getting hit on in a pretty harmless manner by a dude named Robert Lebrun.
Edna gradually develops some feelings for Robert, but the whole beachside community treats the crush as a pretty innocent way to pass the time. Edna has some hobbies other than flirting with Robert, though: she's learning how to paint, how to swim, and she's spending time with her pregnant friend Adele.
Adele is someone that Edna thinks of as naturally maternal: she loves babies, her hubby, and knitting. Edna, however, isn't like that. She yearns for independence. Her husband notices this before he goes back to the city to get some work done—he's a little rude and caddish and questions whether Edna's a good mom.
Edna spends a day at the beach, learning how to really swim. When she comes out of the water, there's an unspoken realization that Robert and her flirtation has become something a little more than a harmless crush. There are now some real-deal feelings on the line.
They spend a few days together doing nothing more than hanging out—the closest they get to smooching is Robert touching her dress. (Yowza.) Out of seemingly nowhere, however, Robert leaves for an extended trip to Mexico. Edna's miffed that he didn't tell her about his impending vacay plans—and, what's more, she gets pretty depressed by his absence.
The summer ends, and Edna returns to her home of New Orleans. She starts acting in a way her husband thinks of as deeply odd—instead of doing housework, she starts painting obsessively, and instead of taking visitors like a respectable housewife, she goes to the house of a mildly eccentric woman to hear her play the piano. The piano music soothes her lovesick soul.
Hubby Pontellier goes so far as to ask a doctor about his wife's weird behavior. He's a little disturbed by this sudden independence. But other guys in the neighborhood, like Robert's young brother Victor, think that Edna's looking pretty good these days. Another dude who notices how suddenly foxy Edna's become is Alcee Arobin, the local playboy. He takes Edna on dates to the horse races.
Mr. Pontellier's doctor gives Edna the all-clear—she's not sick at all. In fact, she's got a lot of color in her cheeks. Hmm: could that be because of the fact that Alcee Arobin is giving Edna a whole lot of (not so subtle) attention?
Yes, yes it could be. In fact, once Mr. Pontellier goes off to New York on business (and the Pontellier kiddos go off to the countryside for a visit) Alcee and Edna start getting it on. Edna doesn't love Alcee—she's actually still head over heels with Robert, although he's in Mexico—but she's having the first truly exciting sex of her life.
This confuses her a bit. All the things that she had taken as gospel: that a woman wants to devote all of herself to her kids and husband, and that sex without love = unsatisfying sex, turn out to be false. Edna's in a bit of a flummox: she's feeling real passion for the first time in her life, but she's also feeling real pain. She moves into a house of her own around the corner from her husband's house, claiming absolute independence.
The sudden return of Robert throws a spanner in the works. They make out passionately, and pledge their mutual love for one another. In fact, Robert says he wants to marry her.
Great, huh? This should be a happy ending, right?
Not so much. Once Robert starts talking about wedding bells, Edna panics a little. She realizes that what she wants is to belong to herself, rather than being a wifely appendage to another husband. They start to talk it out, but a message arrives that Adele (Edna's pregnant, motherly BFF) is delivering her baby. Edna has to run off, but asks Robert to stick around so they can finish their conversation about love and/or marriage.
But when Edna returns, Robert's gone. He's left a note saying that although he loves her—in fact, because he loves her—he's got to split.
Edna, heartbroken and confused, returns to Grand Isle. She knows that she now exists outside of society and tradition, and feels the loneliness of her rebellion. She decides to go for a swim, even though the early-spring water is far too cold. While she's far from the shore, her legs and arms grow weak. Contemplating her life and loves, she presumably drowns.