The novel opens on Grand Isle, a summer retreat for the wealthy French Creoles of New Orleans. Léonce Pontellier, a wealthy New Orleans businessman of forty, reads his newspaper outside the Isle’s main guesthouse. Two birds, the pets of the guesthouse’s proprietor, Madame Lebrun, are making a great deal of noise. The parrot repeats phrases in English and French while the mockingbird sings persistently. Hoping to escape the birds’ disruptive chatter, Léonce retreats into the cottage he has rented. Glancing back at the main building, Léonce notes that the noise emanating from it has increased: the Farival twins play the piano, Madame Lebrun gives orders to two servants, and a lady in black walks back and forth with her rosary beads in hand. Down by the water-oaks his four- and five-year-old sons play under the watchful eye of their quadroon (one-quarter black) nurse.
Léonce smokes a cigar and watches as his wife, Edna, strolls toward him from the beach, accompanied by the young Robert Lebrun, Mrs. Lebrun’s son. Léonce notices that his wife is sunburned and scolds her for swimming during the hottest hours of the day. He returns the rings he’s been holding for Edna and invites Robert to play some billiards at Klein’s hotel. Robert declines and stays to talk with Edna as Léonce walks away.
Robert and Edna talk without pause, discussing the sights and people around them. Robert, a clean-shaven, carefree young man, discusses his plans to seek his fortune in Mexico at the end of the summer. Edna is handsome and engaging. She talks about her childhood in Kentucky bluegrass country and her sister’s upcoming wedding.
Léonce is in great spirits when he returns from playing billiards late that evening. He wakes Edna to tell her the news and gossip from the club, and he is disappointed when she responds with groggy half-answers. He goes to check on his sons and informs Edna that Raoul seems to have a fever. She replies that the child was fine when he went to bed, but Léonce insists that she attend to him, criticizing Edna for her “habitual neglect of the children.”
After a cursory visit to the boys’ bedroom, Edna returns to bed, refusing to answer any of her husband’s inquiries. Léonce soon falls asleep but Edna remains wide awake. She sits on the porch and weeps quietly as she listens to the sea. Though she has found herself inexplicably unhappy many times before, she has always felt comforted by the kindness and devotion of her husband. This particular evening, however, Edna experiences an unfamiliar oppression. It fills her “whole being” and keeps her out on the porch until the bugs force her back inside.
The next morning, Léonce departs for a week-long business trip. Before he leaves, he gives Edna some spending money and says good-bye to the small crowd that has gathered to see him off. From New Orleans, he sends Edna a box of bonbons that she shares with her friends. All of the ladies declare Léonce the best husband in the world, and under pressure Edna admits “she kn[ows] of none better.”