The relationship between an individual and the society (which the individual is part of) is highly complex. The nature of the individual often fails to satisfy the general expectation of the society in general. Individuals often encounter frustration as they cannot always make the society satisfied. Societies on the other hand cannot accommodate certain individuals as their nature and behavior are against the common norms of the society. Literary works involve characters who do not fit in the society. Sometimes cultural expectation or social conditions make people behave in a typical manner. Kate Chopin’s short story ‘The Story of An Hour’ and his novel ‘The awakening’ are two works in which the social conditions or the cultural expectations compel people to escape to the world of freedom (Petry, 1996) (Koloski, 1996).
The protagonist of the novel ‘The awakening’ longed to take herself away from the expectations of her society (Telgen and Hile, 1998). While reading between the lines of ‘The awakening’, readers can find that the most crucial incident, the suicide of Edna (at the end of the book) is a consequence of her attempt to escape from everything and to tear herself away the social expectations to which she was strongly bounded to (Ewell, 1986). Her mentality was one of despair in which she does not wanted to live in the way she was supposed to be. Reading thorough the mind and sole of Edna, we can see that the decision that she has taken at the end was the one and only solution for her to escape from the internal struggles she suffered. She had violated the line that marks the norm of the society (and its conventions) of the late 1800s (Telgen and Hile, 1998). Edna’s despair that she will not be able to live in the ‘expected’ manner, leads to her take her own life. As far as Edna is concerned, suicide appeared to be the right decision in her struggle for freedom and independence. The society in which she lived did not accept her radical behavior (Koloski 1988). Women were expected to be submissive in their role as a wife and mother. Even though Edna was found to be brave enough to challenge those conventions and do strange things that no women had done before, she could not make it till the end and submitted herself to death. Edna was actually becoming free (recognizing her selfhood) attaining freedom and victory that was denied to her by Robert. Edna is a woman who should have born couple of centuries later; she would never fit in the life of the 1800s. Robert’s demand for Edna to be his wife, a ‘mother-woman’, following all the social conventions and followings, were unacceptable to Edna. As far as she was concerned, such a submission to his desires is a denial of her identity. Edna was unable to face this reality and she opted not to live rather than being submissive to the followings. She does not want herself to be locked inside the societal cage in which men others wanted her to reside. Her outlook and personality made her unfit for the life of her times. Edna’s life became quite unsuitable for the role her lover, husband and what the society demanded for her. Edna’s personal desire of freedom was denied in all her relationships, her father, her husband and even Robert (Ewell, 1986). Everybody denied her wish to live in her freedom and wanted her to submit her ‘sense of self’ in the role she was expected to play. Edna refuse to play these roles and her sense of self was too strong and very precious for her. “Edna’s sense of self makes impossible her role of wife and mother as defined by her society; yet she comes to the discovery that her role of wife and mother also makes impossible her continuing sense of independent selfhood” (Chopin, 1982). She was found to be moving into the water and swimming away from the shore where she would remember “Leonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul” (Chopin, 1982). She escaped to the world of freedom. The protagonist of the story ‘The Story of An Hour’, Mrs. Mallard is similar to the protagonist of the novel ‘The awakening’. She was not happy with the bonded life she had with her husband. Even though she was panicked at the news of her husband’s death, we find her getting refreshed through a strange thought of hope.
She overcomes the grief and enters the new world of freedom and joy. She becomes successful in finding a new path of hope and happiness in her dark path of sorrow and despair. She loved freedom more than her life with her husband. While she was pondering about her life as a widow she senses a strange sense of relief and freedom that she would enjoy as a free individual. She loved to be free. All these years she was under bondage. She was under the shadow of her husband. Initially, she is frightened of her own awakening: “There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully (Chopin, 1894).” Her own feelings come upon her, possessing her. When she first utters the words “free, free, free!” she is described as having “abandoned herself (Chopin, 1894).” She soon gains a control of her thoughts. She envisions a free life without her husband. She is no longer ready to lament over the past. She gets easily adjusted to her present situation. She observes that, “There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled above the other in the west facing her window” (Chopin, 1894). Already, the reader recognizes the blue sky as a sign of hope. A sign of hope emerging from a heavy gloominess. Soon enough the reader’s suspicions are confirmed as Mrs. Mallard sits in her chair chanting to herself, “Free, free, free” (Chopin, 1894)! Mrs. Mallard therefore exhibits a strange behavior with respect to the society where she lives. She desperately looked for freedom. Her happiness over freedom even in the news of her husband makes us understand how much she loved freedom (Dyer, 1993).
In the short story readers understand the life of Mrs. Mallard as doctors certify that she died through a heart disease that was triggered by a joy that kills. Readers know that she died while rejoicing herself in the world of freedom. She had a real glimpse of freedom. She touched freedom as she came to know that she longer needs to live in her husband’s will. Even though she died she is found to be free from the hold of her husband. She lived in the world of oppressive male domination. She could never save herself from the patriarchal oppression. She desperately longed for a freedom. Her death underlines the truth that she could never be free. Women of her times have been oppressed by their male counterparts. Mrs. Mallard also had been subjected to this male domination. She finally sees a world of freedom. She finds the budding spring of freedom in the outside world. The world inside the house is nothing but bondage. As she hears the news of her husband’s death she retreats upstairs. She puts herself into a chair and begins the thoughts of her life. This is the first time she is having some thoughts from her own will. She had never been free enough to have her own thoughts. So far her husband’s thoughts were her thoughts. She was never permitted to move in her own way. “The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves” (Chopin, 1894). The window shows a different perspective in the short story. This window is open to a different realm of freedom. This world is the world of freedom that is free from all constraints. Spring of new life is budding in this world. In the view of the protagonist the world she is going to experience is a free world, free from male domination. She is fed up of the male dominated world she is in. Like the protagonist of the novel ‘The awakening’, she wanted to run away from the world of restrictions. She was panting for freedom. When she began to understand that she got her dream world, her heart could not contain that great joy. This made her heart stop. Kate Chopin’s short story ‘The Story of An Hour’ and his novel ‘The awakening’ are two works in which the social conditions or the cultural expectations compel people to escape to the world of freedom.
Alice Hall Petry, ed., Critical Essays on Kate Chopin, 1996.
Barbara C. Ewell, Kate Chopin The Awakening, 1986. Bernard Koloski, Kate Chopin: A Study of the Short Fiction, 1996. Bernard Koloski, ed., Approaches to Teaching “The Awakening”, 1988.
Chopin, Kate. The Story of An Hour, 1894.
Chopin, Kate. The awakening. New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 1982.
Dyer, Joyce. The Awakening: A Novel of Beginnings. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.
Telgen, Diane, and Kevin Hile, eds. Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels. Vol. 3. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1998.