Edna Pontellier, twenty-eight years old, is more handsome than beautiful, her face "captivating by reason of a certain frankness of expression and a contradictory subtle play of features." She is the daughter of a Civil War colonel of the Confederate Army, raised in Kentucky and married, perversely because of her family's protests, to a Creole New Orleans businessman, Leonce Pontellier. Her Protestant reserve contrasts with the risque familiarity present in the conversations of the married women in the Creole summer colony. Edna is without artifice and given to moments of "caprice," such as swimming beyond what others consider a safe distance from shore, acts that reflect her dissatisfaction with her unexamined, interior life. She is an "engaging" personality, neither very talented nor intellectually curious, and disinterested in Creole or any other domestic habits. In the space of a few months, she "awakens" to her "true" self. Hers is the "awakening" of an ordinary woman to love, the sensuous world, and her own spirituality. The ambiance of this social milieu at Grand Isle invites her to "loosen ... the mantle of reserve that [has] always enveloped her," but Edna does not understand the rules of Creole society which, although they allow for the language of personal freedom, demand as strict a propriety as any in the North. Hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, shapes her self-discovery, with disastrous results.
Leonce Pontellier is Edna's husband. He is forty-one years old, a slender, nearsighted Creole with a slight stoop. A prosperous New Orleans businessman, he is conventional, snobbish, kind, and generous to his wife and children, though emotionally remote. Edna's marriage to Leonce "was purely an accident, in this respect resembling many other marriages which masquerade as the decrees of Fate." In her inexperience and infatuation she had mistaken the flattery of his devotion for a "sympathy of thought and taste between them." Her Protestant family violently opposed her marriage to a Catholic which, the narrator tells us, was enough to ensure that she would marry him as quickly as possible. Leonce values Edna as he does all of his finest possessions.
Raoul and Etienne are Edna's two young sons. They interest her in "an uneven, impulsive way. . . [S]he would sometimes forget them" entirely. Because they are in the constant company of their nursemaid, they cause no trouble and come to no harm, despite Edna's indifference.
Robert Lebrun is the instrument of Edna's "awakening" and the focus of her passion. The twenty-six-year-old son of Madame Lebrun, he devotes himself each summer to a young woman, widow, or married guest at Grand Isle, the summer colony on the Gulf of Mexico owned by his family. He is charming, idle, and in love with Edna Pontellier. Early one evening they enjoy a swim, and Edna becomes aware of a "certain light [dawning] dimly within her,—the light which, showing the way, forbids it." He travels to Mexico in order to end their love affair; his reunion with Edna, after his return, seems to fulfill her newly awakened desire. When he abandons her, she commits suicide.
Alcee Arobin is a sophisticated and accomplished escort for respectable, married New Orleans women of Edna's background. He frequently accompanies Edna to the horse races and to dinner when Leonce is away on business. Alcee's character both mirrors and contrasts Robert Lebrun. While Robert is in Mexico and Leonce is in New York, Edna succumbs to Arobin's practiced manner and approach. While he is attracted to Edna and not ungentlemanly in his conduct, his sensuous nature awakens the sexual passions she had previously focused on Robert. Her feelings for Arobin confuse her and finally convince her that, without Robert, she will be only promiscuous.
Madame Adele Ratignolle has been married seven years, has three children, talks constantly of her "condition," and has a fondness for candy. She has perfect hands. Edna, with her "sensuous susceptibility to beauty," is attracted by the physical charm and the personality of this Creole woman. She is a shrewd judge of the risks Edna takes in her affair with Robert and in the appearance of an attachment to Alcee Arobin. In many ways, she acts as Edna's best friend. Edna often visits the Ratignolles' apartment, above their prosperous drugstore.
Mademoiselle Reisz is an elderly concert pianist. She is a single, disagreeable woman with no family and few friends. She is one representation of the life possible for an independent woman in 1899. While a guest at Grand Isle, she develops a friendship with Edna and Robert. When Robert is in Mexico, he writes letters to her about his love for Edna. Edna visits her apartment in New Orleans to read these letters from Robert.
Madame Lebrun is the mother of Robert and Victor. Grand Isle had been the luxury summer property of the Lebrun family. Madame Lebrun maintains her comfortable life by renting cottages to "exclusive visitors from the `Quartier Francais'." Her efficiency and charm symbolize bourgeois Creole resourcefulness and respectability.
The Colonel is Edna Pontellier's father. He had been an officer in the Confederate Army and is still known by his military title. He is gruff and opinionated, but he loves his daughter. On a visit to New Orleans to buy a wedding gift for another daughter, he advises Leonce to be more firm with Edna, to allow her less freedom to neglect her domestic duties. Edna is happy to see him return to his Mississippi plantation.
Victor Lebrun is Robert's nineteen-year-old brother. He is youthfully infatuated with Edna, probably in response to the love his older brother feels for her. He is the last person to see Edna, at Grand Isle, before her suicide.
Doctor Mandelet is the kindly, paternal, and weary family physician to the Pontelliers and the Ratignolles. As an observer in the story, he notes both her sad confusion and her ebullient charm. What he cannot understand, as Chopin illustrates, is that Edna's, or any woman's, dissatisfactions are rooted outside stereotypes of mental weakness. Although he is well-meaning, the good doctor is of little use to his female patients.
Mrs. Merriman and Mrs. Highcamp are acquaintances of Edna's in New Orleans. They function as stock characters in the story. They enjoy parties and horse racing in the company of Alcee Arohin, all the while maintaining their respectability as married women. Their names are reminiscent of characters in a late-seventeenth-century comedy of manners.