Kate Chopin’s short story, ‘The Story of an Hour’ is a vivid portrayal of a female character who dares to approach the death of her husband and her new status as a widow with a sense of self-rejuvenation and a feeling of freedom, from the oppressions of her marriage. As is customary of Kate Chopin’s writings, where her female characters are portrayed to be different from the typical woman encountered during those times or rather the typical woman, one expected to encounter, Louise Mallard of this short story, also serves as one such character. Though initially aggrieved at the death of her husband, she gradually begins to embrace her fate as a widow with an optimistic perspective. The story therefore is a psychological recording of the aggrieved female character who feels liberated from the chains of oppression, eventually only to ironically meet her own end, when her supposedly deceased husband appears before her at the end of the story.
Kate Chopin’s greatness in portraying the story of Louise Mallard lies not only in the content of the story, but also in her choice of words, vivid imagery and finally in the dramatic irony at the end that catches every reader by surprise. The entire story, while presenting a perspective that would have easily shocked many readers of those times, nevertheless stays very close to reality. Louise Mallard’s response, for example gradually evolves from one of grief to a sense of rejuvenation. She is initially seen to weep because of ‘sudden, wild abandonment’, (Chopin) after which she retires alone into her room, giving up to a sense of ‘physical exhaustion’ (Chopin) which is then followed by a sense of rejuvenation, or rather a sense of undeniable freedom. Within this evolution of her feelings, Kate Chopin encircles the reality of the character’s life. While undoubtedly aggrieved at the sudden loss of her husband, she eventually rises out of the oppressive bond of being a wife, retiring alone into her room, thereby signifying the future life she desires to lead; free from the bonds of living for other people. Moreover, the physical exhaustion that she feels undoubtedly bears witness to the oppressive life that she had led. Thus, the gloom, the oppression and the physical exhaustion of her past is gradually overcome with the vivid and rejuvenating images of ‘the spring of new life’, with ‘delicious breath of rain in the air’ and the ‘countless…twittering’ of sparrows and with a peaceful atmosphere roofed by ‘patches of blue sky’, (Chopin) which she views from the window of her room (the window thereby serving as another image of freedom). The storm of grief and the gloom now lie quite forgotten along with her heart trouble, which according to Jennifer Hicks, was never an indication of heart disease but rather pointed to the fact that her marriage had not ‘allowed her to live for herself’ (2002).
The vivid imagery drawn by Kate Chopin thereby give an irrepressible feeling of re-awakening and the reader can in fact visualize Louise Mallard rising before their eyes, breaking away from the repressive marriage and surrendering herself to the ‘brief moment of illumination’ (Chopin) that was determined to possess her. The gradual evolution of her emotions that is established by the writer therefore serve in strengthening her character. Critic Daniel P. Deneau writes, ‘If immediately after learning of the death of her husband Louise had gone through a rapid logical process leading to a celebration of her total freedom, she might have seemed to be a hard, calculating, and therefore unsympathetic woman’ (2003).
While women of the time were expected to bemoan the death of their husband and their status as a widow, Kate Chopins determines herself to present a new perspective through the character of Louise Mallard. The sense of rejuvenation, experienced by the character is therefore an assertion to the people of the time who denied women their basic rights. Through Louise Mallard, Kate Chopin not only asserts the female entity but also asserts their individuality plus the fact that they too have dreams and emotions that are constantly being repressed by the male party and by societal norms. While Louise Mallard may strike to some readers as a mad woman, Kate Chopin portrays her as a woman who dares to approach her tragedy with a fresh perspective.
However, the story ends in a dramatic irony. The dreams that she had envisioned for herself come crashing down in the form of her husband appearing before her at the door. The freedom that she had just begun to feel is suddenly stripped away from her, and in her husband she sees not the joy of his return as perceived by the doctor, but a return to the gloom and the oppressive reality of her marriage, which she can no longer bring herself to return to. Thus her death is really the result of horror, rather than joy. Through her ironic death at the end of the story, the writer establishes how it was impossible for the character to return to the oppressive life that she had so victoriously’ risen out of. Thus, even in death, Louise Mallard, represents the entire female race, asserting the individuality of women who need to be acknowledged as separate individuals rather as the counterpart of the male race. While the doctor misperceives the reason of her death, the reader knows better and thus Kate Chopin leaves a lasting impression upon the reader, of the character’s oppressive situation that she was so unwilling to return to.
It is also important to note, that Kate Chopin, through her clever use of words, in describing the mental storm and re-awakening of Louise Mallard adds a unique element to her style. She makes no blatant suggestions of the reality of Louise Mallard’s marriage, but in fact allows her readers to read and interpret for themselves. Words like ‘heart trouble’ for example do not necessarily pin point towards Louise Mallard having a heart disease; it can be as Jennifer Hicks pointed out, an indication of the troubled and oppressed life that she was made to live. However, at the same time, critic Lawrence L. Berkove perceives it in a different manner. He writes: ‘Louise was indeed doubly afflicted with heart trouble. Physically, her heart was weak, and emotionally, it had no room for anyone else’ (2000). Moreover, while many perceive the story on the whole, as a tale of female assertion, to Lawrence L. Berkove, the character, with her ‘dark and twisted fantasies’ is of a ‘confused and unhealthy mind’ (2000) and the story could have no other end than the one it had for ‘what she wants, is, literally, not obtainable in this life.’ (2000).
Thus, to conclude the short story is indeed seen to engender diverse opinions. Through the writer’s clever use of words, each and every reader feels independent to come up with his personal interpretations and in this way Kate Chopin allows the story to live and re-live in various perspectives within every reader’s mind.
Berkove, Lawrence I. “Fatal Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’.” American Literary Realism 32.2 (Winter 2000): 152-158. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Janet
Witalec. Vol. 127. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center. Web. 22 June 2011.
Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour”. Vcu.edu. vcu, n.d. Web. 22 June 2011
Deneau, Daniel P. “Chopin’s The Story of an Hour.” The Explicator 61.4 (2003): 210+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 22 June 2011.
Hicks, Jennifer. “An overview of “The Story of an Hour”.” Short Stories for Students. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center. Web. 22 June 2011