Edna is the protagonist of the novel, and the “awakening” to which the title refers is hers. The twenty-eight-year-old wife of a New Orleans businessman, Edna suddenly finds herself dissatisfied with her marriage and the limited, conservative lifestyle that it allows. She emerges from her semi-conscious state of devoted wife and mother to a state of total awareness, in which she discovers her own identity and acts on her desires for emotional and sexual satisfaction. Through a series of experiences, or “awakenings,” Edna becomes a shockingly independent woman, who lives apart from her husband and children and is responsible only to her own urges and passions. Tragically, Edna’s awakenings isolate her from others and ultimately lead her to a state of total solitude.
Mademoiselle Reisz may be the most influential character in Edna’s awakening. She is unmarried and childless, and she devotes her life to her passion: music. A talented pianist and somewhat of a recluse, she represents independence and freedom and serves as a sort of muse for Edna. When Edna begins actively to pursue personal independence, she seeks Mademoiselle Reisz’s companionship. Mademoiselle warns Edna that she must be brave if she wishes to be an artist—that an artist must have a courageous and defiant soul. Mademoiselle Reisz is the only character in the novel who knows of the love between Robert and Edna, and she, thus, serves as a true confidante for Edna despite their considerably different personalities. Mademoiselle Reisz is also a foil for Edna’s other close female friend, Adèle Ratignolle, who epitomizes the conventional and socially acceptable woman of the late nineteenth century.
Edna’s close friend, Adèle Ratignolle represents the Victorian feminine ideal. She idolizes her children and worships her husband, centering her life around caring for them and performing her domestic duties. While her lifestyle and attitude contrast with Edna’s increasing independence, Adèle unwittingly helps facilitate her friend’s transformation. Her free manner of discourse and expression, typical of Creole women of the time, acts as a catalyst for Edna’s abandonment of her former reserved and introverted nature. Adele is also a foil for Mademoiselle Reisz, whose independent and unconventional lifestyle inspires Edna’s transgressions.
Robert Lebrun is the twenty-six-year-old single man with whom Edna falls in love. Dramatic and passionate, he has a history of becoming the devoted attendant to a different woman each summer at Grand Isle. Robert offers his affections comically and in an over-exaggerated manner, and thus is never taken seriously. As the friendship between Robert and Edna becomes more intimate and complex, however, he realizes that he has genuinely fallen in love with Edna. He is torn between his love for her and society’s view that women are the possessions of their husbands.
The seductive, charming, and forthright Alcée Arobin is the Don Juan of the New Orleans Creole community. Arobin enjoys making conquests out of married women, and he becomes Edna’s lover while her husband is on a business trip to New York. Although Robert Lebrun is the man whom Edna truly loves, Arobin satisfies Edna’s physical urges while Robert is in Mexico. Throughout their passionate affair, Edna retains authority and never allows Alcée to own or control her.
Léonce Pontellier, a forty-year-old, wealthy New Orleans businessman, is Edna’s husband. Although he loves Edna and his sons, he spends little time with them because he is often away on business or with his friends. Very concerned with social appearances, Léonce wishes Edna to continue the practices expected of New Orleans women despite her obvious distaste for them. His relationship with Edna lacks passion and excitement, and he knows very little of his wife’s true feelings and emotions.
Doctor Mandelet is Léonce and Edna’s family physician. He is a fairly enlightened man, who silently recognizes Edna’s dissatisfaction with the restrictions placed on her by social conventions. When Léonce consults with him about Edna’s unconventional behavior, the doctor suspects that Edna is in love with another man, although he keeps his suspicions to himself because he recognizes that there is little Léonce can do if Edna is indeed in love with someone else and that any further constraints imposed on her will only intensify her revolt. Doctor Mandelet offers Edna his help and understanding and is worried about the possible consequences of her defiance and independence.
The Colonel, a former Confederate officer in the Civil War, is Edna’s father. He is a strict Protestant and believes that husbands should manage their wives with authority and coercion. While Edna’s relationship with her father is not affectionate, she is surprised by how well she gets along with her father when they are together.
Victor Lebrun is Robert’s wayward younger brother. He spends his time chasing women and refuses to settle down into a profession.
Madame Lebrun is the widowed mother of Victor and Robert. She owns and manages the cottages on Grand Isle where the novel’s characters spend their summer vacations.
The lady in black is a vacationer at the Lebrun cottages on Grand Isle. She embodies the patient, resigned solitude that convention expects of a woman whose husband has died, but her solitude does not speak to any sort of independence or strength. Rather, it owes to a self-effacing withdrawal from life and passion out of utter respect for her husband’s death. Throughout the novel, the lady in black remains silent, which contributes to her lack of individuality and to her role within the text as the symbol of the socially acceptable husbandless woman.
The two lovers are vacationers at the Lebrun cottages on Grand Isle. They represent the form of young love accepted by society. Always appearing in conjunction with the lady in black, the lovers represent the stage of a woman’s life that precedes her maternal duties.
The Farival twins are fourteen-year-old girls who vacation at Grand Isle with their family and who frequently entertain their fellow guests by playing the piano. They represent the destiny of adolescent Victorian girls: chaste motherhood. Having been dedicated to the Virgin Mary at birth, they wear her colors at all times. Moreover, they embody society’s expectations of the way women should use art—as a way of making themselves more delightful to others, rather than as a means of self-expression.
A tall, worldly woman in her forties, Mrs. Highcamp spends time with many of the fashionable single men of New Orleans under the pretext of finding a husband for her daughter. Alcée Arobin is one of these young men, and the two call on Edna to attend the races and to accompany them to dinner—meetings that catalyze the affair between Edna and Arobin.
Janet is Edna’s younger sister. Edna was never close to her and she refuses to attend her wedding. Margaret is Edna and Janet’s older sister. After their mother died, Margaret took over the role of mother figure for her younger sisters.
A young, pretty Spanish girl, Mariequita is a mischievous flirt who lives on Grand Isle. She seems to fancy both Robert and Victor Lebrun and, along with Adèle, is the picture of the self-demeaning coquetry that Edna avoids.
When Edna feels faint at the Sunday service on the island of Chênière Caminada, she and Robert go to Madame Antoine’s for the day. A friendly inhabitant of the island, Madame Antoine takes them in and cares for Edna, to whom she tells stories of her life.
Some of the guests present at the dinner party Edna holds to celebrate her move to the “pigeon house.”
Etienne and Raoul are Edna and Léonce’s two sons. They are four and five years old, respectively.