When The Awakening was published in 1899, it was condemned and occasionally banned because of its focus on its protagonist's sexual awakening and subsequent claiming of independence. Edna Pontellier is a young married mother of two when the book opens. She and her children are summering on the Gulf Coast, while her husband comes out from New Orleans for weekend visits. Among the crowd at the beach is Robert LeBrun, whose family owns the resort where the Pontelliers are staying. Edna and Robert form a bond through long days spent talking, walking, and swimming (Edna has household help to care for the children); their relationship is one of the stimulants to Edna's sexual awakening, but so are learning to swim, the sultry Louisiana weather, and the music that another guest at the resort plays some evenings.
When the summer is over, Robert, constrained by convention from taking his love for a married woman beyond a close friendship, announces he is moving to Mexico to pursue business opportunities. Edna is devastated, but nonetheless begins the process of changing her life back in New Orleans. She cuts off most of her social contacts, simply not being there for her usual "Tuesdays at home" when estimable ladies come to call. She begins working on her painting, heretofore just a pastime, and makes some questionable connections, most notably with the womanizer Alcee Arobin. When her husband Leonce goes on an extended business trip to New York and her children are sent to stay with her mother-in-law, Edna asserts her independence even further, going so far as to rent a separate house for herself (her husband arranges for remodeling at their family home to cover up her scandalous behavior).
Then Robert returns from Mexico and admits that he loves her but must leave forever because their love violates society's conventions. Edna is devastated; she returns to the resort where the two fell in love and walks into the Gulf of Mexico to die (an ending that is foreshadowed in several earlier scenes in which the water seems to call to Edna).
Chopin evokes the Southern environment, both physical and psychological, beautifully; while the physical environment helps to unlock Edna's sexuality and awareness of herself, the psychological environment is stultifying. Regarded as one of the first feminist novels, The Awakening is very much a part of its late 19th-century time--Edna does, after all, still kill herself over a man. And yet Edna's suicide is also a final statement of her independence (cf. Austen's "independent" heroines of earlier in the century or even Louisa May Alcott's Jo, who found their happiness in marriage). Jane Smiley suggests reading Chopin in conjunction with Edith Wharton and Henry James (neither of whom I have read much of), and I am thinking of following her advice.
It is really too hot to think, especially to think about thinking.
Woman, my dear friend, is a very peculiar and delicate organism--a sensitive and highly organized woman, such as I know Mrs. Pontellier to be, is especially peculiar. It would require an inspired psychologist to deal successfully with them. And when ordinary fellows like you and me attempt to cope with their idiosyncrasies the result is bungling. [This is the opinion of a doctor Mr. Pontellier called in to ascertain why his wife was behaving so oddly.]
When the weather was dark and cloudy Edna could not work. She needed the sun to mellow and temper her mood to the sticking point.