The Feminist Theme in The Story of an Hour Essay
In his essay, “Feminine Self-Assertion in ‘The Story of an Hour”, Prof. Xuding Wang claims “Kate Chopin explores feminine selfhood in a patriarchal society through the heroine’s spiritual journey to freedom in ‘The Story of an Hour.” (Wang 107) While arguing his position Wang very often says that Chopin’s protagonist Louise continually searches for her selfhood. But in Chopin’s age such an attempt of a woman to seek for freedom which seems to be insulting to the male-dominated society usually ends in smoke like Louise, as Wang says in the following sentence, “By the death of Louise at the end of the story, Chopin clearly implies that any woman’s search for ideal feminine selfhood is impossible in an age dominated by patriarchs” (Wang 107). Indeed the textual evidences that Wang puts forth are not strong enough to prove his proposition as a fact. In this paper, I will prove that Wang’s claim about Chopin’s motif in the story is partially right and partially wrong. It is true that Kate Chopin explores “feminine selfhood in a patriarchal society” but not through “the heroine’s spiritual journey to freedom”. Again, unlike Wang’s proposition, Chopin’s heroine does not show any sign of attempt to search for her feminine selfhood.
What Wang says in support of his claim about “the heroine’s spiritual journey to freedom” is the textual reference to Louise’s reaction to the possibility of freedom at the possible death of her husband. Louise’s one-hour reaction to the possible freedom does not involve any struggle that could provoke the protagonist’s awareness of her imprisonment in the male dominated society. Therefore, Wang’s phrase, “the heroine’s spiritual journey to freedom”, is quite meaningless in the sense that Chopin’s protagonist does not make a journey to freedom. Indeed freedom once comes to her unexpectedly. Again, since Louise is ignorant of what imprisons her in a male dominated society, she can see only the minimal aspect of freedom. For Chopin’s protagonist, freedom means to live for herself, not for others, to live on one’s own will, as the narrator of the story tells Louise’s feeling for the oncoming freedom: “There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature” (Chopin 89).
Such perception of freedom rather reveals the protagonist’s immaturity and failure to perceive the greater responsibility that freedom imposes upon the one who enjoys it. When ‘to live for others’ is supposed to be one’s duty one’s freedom “to avoid it” should be considered as anarchy. Louise’s perception of freedom is ultimately flawed, because she seeks freedom from her responsibilities for others and because she does not seek freedom to be responsible. However, Louise herself is not responsible for such flawed perception of freedom; rather she is a mere production of the patriarchy that shapes her psychological development in such way.
Unlike Wang’s claim that Louise makes a journey to freedom at the prospect of her husband’s death, she remains far away from freedom in its true sense. Apart from this wrong interpretation, Wang righteously asserts that Chopin’s protagonist begins to form her selfhood hearing the news of her husband’s death. Though Wang claims that Louise searches for “ideal feminine selfhood” (Wang 108), Chopin’s portrayal of Louise’s nascent self is purely asexual, not a feminine selfhood. A man also can possess the self that Louise starts to form after hearing the death-news. It is the self (the asexual one) that defies any bondage and repression in any form and that always resists the suppressive power. Louise envisages that there would be “no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.” (Chopin 90) Indeed what Wang mistakes for Louise’s freedom is her free selfhood: “free! Body and soul” (Chopin 90) Whether Louise endeavors to search for this emancipated selfhood (as Wang claims) is evident in the text; rather it is evident that after hearing the news of husband’s false death, she begins to perceive the new status of her freed being and her self that will, no more, be bent down by her husband’s will.
Obviously, Chopin manipulates her protagonist for experimenting a woman’s reaction to conceiving her selfhood in a male dominated society. She maintains a respectable neutrality and asexuality during the experimentation. She allows her heroine one hour to possess her selfhood and write down her feelings for the newborn short-living self: “this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!” (Chopin 90) During this short span of one hour, Chopin lets her readers view how autonomous a woman’s self can be. Louise acknowledges her husband’s love and kindness; yet she feels a sense of relief at his false death. Chopin does not tell her readers anything clearly about why the heroine of the story cannot explain her complacence and ecstasy at her husband’s death. Rather the author simply presents a small fragment of a woman’s life that provokes a reader to read the story as a sequel to his or her own real life. Obviously, Chopin’s story will be endowed with a greater meaning, if Mrs. Mallard’s forbidden joy of independence is perceived in a real life setting. In a real life setting, Mrs. Mallard is like most other common women who, having no economic independence, cannot but depend on their husbands. Therefore, they are compelled to obey their husbands while suppressing their own desires. Indeed, it is the patriarchal society that keeps them away from any self-supporting activities that wants them to be loyal to their husband, and that punishes them and also endows the male counterparts with a power to reprimand and punish their wives in cases of the violation of the behavior codes that women are expected to follow. In addition, the patriarchal society can confine women within the four walls of their husbands’ house. In such a patriarchal setting, Mrs. Mallard is really lucky enough to get a husband like Brently who is kind and loving to her. Therefore, Mrs. Mallard knows that she should not feel joy at her husband’s possible death. Yet she cannot but feel the ecstasy since her joy at the death of her husband as an imposer of restriction is far higher than her sorrow at the death of husband as a sympathizer.
In her story, Chopin deals with the same story of a woman’s lack of selfhood in a round-about way. In contradiction to others’ expectation Mrs. Mallard senses the gush of complacent freedom hearing the news of her husband’s death. She feels sad. However, concurrently she also feels the complacence at her oncoming freedom, as the narrator describes Mrs. Mallard’s joy in the following manner: “There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name” (Chopin 89). At the news of Bentley’s death, she feels the prospect of living a life of enormous freedom and joy. But since in patriarchy a woman is not accustomed to express herself freely, she fears even to acknowledge the source of mirth and ecstasy. Though “she was striving to beat it back with her will” (Chopin, 89), she fails to do so. Indeed, it is her self-realization and her acknowledgement that the death of her husband and the prospect of living a free life are the sources of her ecstasies. However, gradually before the unexpected arrival of her husband alive, she manages to learn it, as the narrator says, “She was beginning to recognize this thing….When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under hate breath: “free, free, free!” (Chopin 90)
Chopin, Kate, “The Story of an Hour”, Feminist Story Collection. New York: Bookshaw, 1998. Print
Wang, Xuding. “Feminine Self-Assertion in ‘The Story of an Hour’”, Department of English: Tamkang University. Web. Available at