‘The Story of an Hour’ (1894) is written by Kate Chopin an American writer and describes that one crucial hour in the life of her protagonist, when major changes take place around her. The original title of the story was ‘The Dream of an Hour’ describing the incidents from when she received the sad news of her husband’s demise in a ghastly railroad accident up to the time she gets the biggest shock of her life when her sister answers the doorbell.
Kate Chopin is an acclaimed author who lived during the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century. Her works are imbued with the notions of freedom and emancipation for women that was sweeping through the country and she was renowned for her individuality and strength, quite rare in upper middle-class women of her time. Her stories revolve around the theme of marriage and family which Chopin treats in the most unconventional way. Her short stories are mandatory reading for students studying American Feminist literature. Chopin’s feminist writings were frowned upon in the period when they were written, because they were considered to be “the psychological, physical, social and sexual emancipation” (Toth, 242) of her works that appealed to the readers of the 1950’s, who identified with a woman’s need for freedom.
Kate Chopin’s story vividly describes the different human emotions that occur according to the incidents that take place at Louise’s home and the rapid changes that occur within that one hour when Mrs. Mallard (Louise) hears the news of her husband’s death. Louise Mallard is portrayed as a character who is weak in both body and mind. She is afflicted with heart problems even though she is young. When the family receives the sad news of her husband’s death in a road accident, her sister Josephine takes a lot of trouble in trying to break the news very gently to her for fear of triggering her sister’s heart problems and worsening an already bad situation.
On hearing the news Louise Mallard cries bitterly in the arms of her sister for some time and when all grief is spent, she retires to her room where she locks herself away to continue her mourning for her beloved husband. However, as she sits in her chair with the head resting back in front of her window, a great change takes place within her and she strongly feels a sense of freedom of both body and soul. The sense of exhilaration is so intense that she hears herself whisper the words- ‘Free body and soul free…’ and she concludes that this freedom is a benefit that death has brought her. She revels in her new found freedom while se releases thoughts of her bitter past.
Josephine, her sister feels a lot of apprehension when she finds that Louise had locked herself in for quite some time now and was alone. She feared that Louise was taking the news badly and that she may develop a heart attack soon. Therefore, she kept knocking incessantly on her door imploring her to open and let her in. Josephine feels responsible for her sister’s weak heart condition and does not want her to be alone for such a long time as she feared anything could happen to her.
Kate Chopin gives a major twist to this story at the end and shocks her audience of the least unexpected happening. For all the rosy pictures Louise painted in her mind, fate had dealt her a big blow, because before the crucial hour could end, Mrs. Louise Mallard comes face to face with her husband once again when her sister Josephine opens the front door when she hears a knock. The shock of seeing her supposedly dead husband come back to life was too much for her weak heart to bear and she drops dead to the floor. The cause of her death was ambiguous as it was strange. Her death could have been physical due to her heart problems or it could have been the psychological factors that plagued her mind just before her death.
In trying to analyze Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’ many critics have given many different views. From the point of view of its lifelike characters, some critics feel a sort of melancholy towards Louise because she had to hear the news of her husband’s death even while she suffered from a poor heart condition. However, most critics are of the opinion that Chopin’s story is all about women liberation. Critic Bert Bender in his “The Teeth of Desire: The Awakening and The Descent of Man,” describes Chopin’s story by saying that Louise ‘feels the ecstasy of being liberated from what seems love.’ (Bender, Bert, 1991, 463)
However, Lawrence L. Berkove (2000) looks at Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’ from a very different angle. In his article titled “Fatal Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour,'” Berkove (2000) states that instead of looking at the protagonist Louise as a tragic character, he feels that she had been used as an immature egoist by Chopin. He makes his point clear because nowhere in this story is Louise’s husband Mr. Mallard depicted as an uncaring or awful husband. From his perspective, Louise is not justified in feeling such a sense of liberty and freedom. Berkove also argues about the fact of Louise ‘self assertion’ stating that it is a clear case of Louise’s manifestation of self love, which is portrayed in the story as an emotional affliction of the heart that had physical consequences.’ (Lawrence L. Berkove, 2000) By bringing out these important points, Berkove counters the justification made that Chopin’s story is about female liberation.
The major themes in ‘The Story of an Hour’ revolved around marriage and emotional repression. According to Jamail, Chopin portrays Louise’s feelings of her husband’s death more from an emotional angle rather than rationality. His argument was that her life was devoid of emotion because she mentions that life was not worth living. From his point of view Mr. Mallard was a repressive husband who had ‘smothered’ and ‘silenced’ her will and stifled all life from her. In retrospect of her suffering, Louise feels an influx of emotion and is secretly ecstatic about her newfound freedom after her husband’s death. The emotions of joy she feels she is going to enjoy after this is termed as ‘the joy that kills’ in Chopin’s realistic story. The reason for using this phrase is because it is these feelings of joy that were responsible for killing her.
Jamil, gives us another example of how Louise loathed her husband’s repression. This is clearly seen when she hears of her husband’s death, she feels released from his repression and welcomes her freedom with wide open arms expressing that she was ‘free, free, free’. She envisioned how her life would change with this freedom and reveled at the fact that she would be no longer repressed ever again. Though in the story, the audience does not get a glimpse of direct repression of her husband, yet her reaction on hearing the news of his death is proof enough to be understood. The audience gets a glimpse of the living hell that Louise and her husband is a part of without a way of escape.
The society in which she lives condoned her pitiable condition and showed no sympathy for her. She too is a human being, but one that is denied of freedom and self expression. Through marriage she has signed away her liberty and her dignity and was forced to live in suppression under her husband’s tyrannical rule. She feels like a trapped animal who can find no way of escape except through death. Even though her husband’s repressive behavior is not mentioned deeply, yet we can understand the feeling from the sense of liberty that wells up in her heart when she gets news of his passing away. From her expressions of ‘Free body and free soul’ we come to understand that Louise led a life of poor quality because she had been denied her rights of freedom of expression which is so important for any human being.
The Story of an Hour can be called a minimalist story because it is so short but yet contains such deep thoughts and emotions. It portrays a woman who is trapped in a marriage with death as her only escape. But Louise had never contemplated her husband’s death at any time in the story, but feels a gay abandon when she hears the news of his death. The repression and insipidness of life that she experienced from her marriage was also reflected in the way society treated her and all other women like her. She fully well understood her position of living in a man’s world and so followed the norms and patterns of a dutiful wife. This point is seen clearly manifested when her husband’s friend Richard brings news of his death, but even so, it is her sister Josephine who breaks the news gently to her.
Some of the most important lines in Kate Chopin’s story are -“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.” (Kate Chopin) It is these lines that sum up the central theme of the story because it depicts the repressive and dull life she lead with her husband with nothing more to look forward to.
The technique used by Kate Chopin is what is called foreshadowing and she uses it with great expertise. The following is a clear example of the technique of foreshadowing. In the very first sentence of the story she declares that something bad is going to happen to this lady. The audience is easily tricked into believing what she intended to convey. But on finding a major twist at the end of the story, they come to know that this was not the ending they had expected. The surprise ending gives a bit of a shock to her audience because they least expect it. The drama that describes Louise’s repressive life makes us forget about her poor heart condition and so the ending that Chopin gives us is quite deceiving. She uses the technique of foreshadow at this juncture which serves to surprise us with an unexpected ending of what actually happens at the end of one crucial hour.
Kate Chopin’s work reflects upon her life and her stories which are an extension of her own experiences and the desires that arose for freedom, due to the events that shaped her own destiny. Chopin had great mastery and as seen in this piece, she could convey such a profound idea in the space of a few pages. It is this which has made Kate Chopin a star in the pantheon of American writers.
The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin has a special beauty of its own because she keeps her language simple but yet so clear in its presentation. The story is very short but yet it has great depth and meaning portraying the innermost feelings of a simple human being who was denied what was rightfully hers, just because she was married. One of the points She makes very clear is that marriage condones the bad acts of one human being to another by making it legal. She also clearly brings out the inhumane feelings of people in this society because they are least concerned what happens to other people around him. Kate Chopin’s story is based on reality and acts as a sort of a signboard to all married couples who take each other for granted and get away with injustice to another human being because they hold a ‘trump card’ called marriage!
Bender, Bert. “The Teeth of Desire: The Awakening and the Descent of Man.” American Literature 63.3 (Sep., 1991): 459-473.
Berkove, Lawrence L. “Fatal Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour.” American Literary Realism 32.2 (2000): 152-158. Web. 5 Nov 2010.
Jamil, Selina S. “Emotions in ‘The Story of an Hour’” Explicator (2009): 215-220.
Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’ www.123helpme.com/view.asp?id=6798
Toth, Emily. “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening as Feminist Criticism.” Louisiana Studies 15 (Fall 1976), 241-251.