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The Awakening | Plot Summary

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Summary

At Madame Lebrun's cottages on the summer resort island of Grand Isle, wealthy businessman Léonce Pontellier struggles to find a peaceful place to read the newspaper. He ends up in a rocking chair on his cottage porch, smoking as his two children play. Shortly his wife, Edna, arrives at the cottage, accompanied by Robert Lebrun, Madame Lebrun's son. After a time Mr. Pontellier prepares to go out for the evening, leaving Robert and Edna at the cottage chatting like good friends. Later, after Edna is asleep, her husband returns. One of their sons tosses restlessly in his bed; deciding the boy has a fever Mr. Pontellier becomes upset and implies Edna is a neglectful mother. After Mr. Pontellier goes to bed, Edna sits alone and wide awake, upset by the way he treated her.

The next day Mr. Pontellier leaves for New Orleans to attend to his business. While he is away he sends Edna a box of treats, which she shares with Robert and her friend Madame Ratignolle, who is pregnant.

In Mr. Pontellier's absence Robert and Edna continue to spend time together. Madame Ratignolle, sensing Edna and Robert are quite close, warns Robert to leave Edna alone.

One summer evening a party is going on at the main house of Madame Lebrun's cottages. Robert convinces Mademoiselle Reisz, an accomplished pianist, to play a piece. Edna experiences an intense emotional reaction to the music. After the party breaks up Edna and Robert walk with a group down to the beach. Edna decides to attempt a swim; she's been trying to learn to swim all summer without success. But this time she stays afloat. Euphoric, she swims out farther than is wise and has a moment of panic when she sees how far she is from shore. She makes it back safely, however.

On Sunday a group from Grand Isle goes by boat to the Cheniere, a nearby island, for a church service. Robert and Edna go, but Edna becomes ill during the mass. Robert takes Edna to Madame Antoine's home, where Edna naps most of the day. Edna and Robert stay late at Madame Antoine's before going back to Grand Isle together. Just a few days after this Robert decides to leave for Mexico to pursue some opportunities there. After he leaves Edna is noticeably sad.

The summer winds down, and soon it is time for the Pontelliers to go back to New Orleans. After they have settled in Edna begins to break with her normal routine. She stops paying social visits and receiving callers, and she refuses to correct the household staff when they underperform. Instead she pursues her painting. Her husband is concerned—both about Edna and how her behavior might look to others in their social circle. One night he expresses dismay at her lack of interest in running the household and storms out to get dinner at the club. Edna becomes angry, smashing a vase and trying to crush her wedding ring.

Edna calls on Mademoiselle Reisz, who reveals Robert sent her a letter asking about Edna. Edna feels slighted that Robert did not send her a letter too, but she is eager for news of him. Edna tells Mademoiselle Reisz she is becoming an artist, and the pianist tells her an artist must be courageous.

Mr. Pontellier asks Doctor Mandelet what to do about Edna's strange behavior, and Doctor Mandelet advises him to let Edna do as she pleases. Mr. Pontellier agrees but invites the doctor to dinner to observe Edna. Edna's father, the Colonel, is visiting, and the talk over dinner is lively. Something Edna says makes Doctor Mandelet think she might be having an affair—which is not yet the case—but he discreetly keeps his suspicion to himself because he doesn't think it is anyone's business.

Some time later Edna finds herself alone at home for an extended period; her husband is away on business, and the children are staying with their grandmother. She enjoys her time alone and goes to the races several times. There she meets Alcée Arobin, a man who knows his way around women. As their relationship develops it becomes sexually charged.

Meanwhile Edna decides to move out of her husband's grand home to a smaller one (the "pigeon house") she can afford on her own—partly with money she earns by selling her artwork. As she sets this plan in motion she learns Robert is soon to return from Mexico. Her pleasurable anticipation finds an outlet in a sexual encounter with Alcée. Edna feels conflicted about this because she loves Robert, but she enjoys expressing her sexual feelings.

On her 29th birthday Edna hosts a dinner party meant to be a goodbye to her husband's large house. Afterward she and Alcée walk together to the pigeon house and again have sex.

Some days later Edna runs into Robert, who has returned from Mexico. Robert is uncomfortable about getting too close to her, and their conversation is awkward. For the next few days he seems to avoid her. When she runs into him again in a local garden, he agrees to accompany her home, and they both admit that they love one another. Just as things get serious, however, Edna receives a message that Madame Ratignolle is in labor and needs Edna by her side. Since Edna previously promised to be there for her friend's labor and delivery, she feels obliged to go. She tells Robert to stay at her house until she gets back. It is clear she means they will spend the night together.

When Edna returns Robert is gone. He has left a note saying, "Good-by—because I love you." Edna stays up all night. The next day she returns to Grand Isle where she goes to the sea, wades out, begins to swim, until she is finally too far out to make it back to shore.

The Awakening Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 The wealthy Pontelliers stay on Grand Isle, a summer resort.

Rising Action

2 Edna Pontellier and Robert Lebrun develop a friendship.

3 Mademoiselle Reisz's piano playing fills Edna with emotion.

4 Edna discovers she can swim.

5 Robert decides to go to Mexico; he leaves Grand Isle.

6 The Pontelliers return to New Orleans.

7 Léonce travels on business; Edna moves to her own house.

8 Edna has a sexual affair with womanizer Alcée Arobin.

Climax

9 Robert returns; Edna and Robert confess their love.

Falling Action

10 Edna is called away; Robert remains at her house.

11 When Edna returns, Robert has gone.

Resolution

12 Edna swims so far out to sea she cannot return to shore.

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