It may be hard to imagine today that there was a time when the word “obey” in the wedding vow for a bride was not considered to be a problem. On the contrary it was considered to be proper, especially in light of biblical authority that would seem to authorize such notions. “The Story of an Hour”-or “The Dream of an Hour” as it was titled originally-was produced at a time when many established concepts were being threatened to be uprooted; today the succeeding ideas are just as deeply embedded in societal values.
It is however well appreciated that before the zeitgeist at any given begins to switch directions, many must be labeled as eccentrics and later heralded as great thinkers. As Bertrand Russell in his own time very eloquently said, one should not fear to be eccentric in opinion as every opinion accepted today was once eccentric. Can Chopin be said to be a little early with her ideas? Did she know that this particular work of hers would not be accorded the deserved attention for another six decades after she wrote it? To answer these questions this discussion will proceed first by identifying the ideas within the work itself and how they corresponded with the awakening voice of dissent during that time. It would then be discussed whether Chopin’s own personal experiences had anything to do with “The Story of an Hour”.
One cursory perusal of the story would reveal that Mrs. Mallard-the central character as she might be called-is torn between grief at the death of her husband and elation at being free. This is so at least initially before she seems to be overpowered with elation as the reality of what has happened starts to sink in. Of the many key points that might be extracted from the story these would be significant: A healthy marriage was something to be cherished; it might be considered dishonorable to be divorced or without a husband; it was generally accepted that wives needed the protection of their husbands; love between husband and wife was not a necessity but a working and functioning relationship certainly was.
All of these factors can be seen to be deeply ingrained societal values towards the end of the nineteenth century. This was a time when the second wave of the feminist movement was building up, the first having recently subsided. This was when the beliefs on origins of life and the truth of religion were beginning to be shaken. From the more educated and sometimes aristocratic circles and avalanche of writings would spring up that would register the frustration of people who seemed to ‘know better’ since they had discovered the ‘truth’. From the less privileged quarters there was often resignation and a quite, private, personal disbelief that sometimes caused the utterance of a comment or two.
The issue was that hardly any dissenting voice was feminine, not because women found nothing to disagree with, but because they had not empowered themselves for the task. “The Story of an Hour” can be said to be the product of such circumstances, written to express the indecision of a woman who wanted to explore bigger horizons but who conventionally had little to complain about in life. Indeed this seems to be the main theme of the story, whereby Mrs. Mallard was expected to be suicidal at the news of her husband’s death. This resonates clearly from the start of the story where the news is carefully broken to her due to her heart disease and later when she is asked to unlock the room for her own safety. What nobody seems to realize is how Mrs. Mallard might actually welcome the fact that her husband is no longer around. Indeed even today, the very thought might seem morbid and Mrs. Mallard can be clearly seen to be fighting off the thought so she can grieve like a dutiful wife. However, morbid it may not be when coming from the pen of the author who sees more than just a working marriage relationship and a protective and often loving husband.
The author saw everything from unequal pay and voting rights to the general sub ordinance a woman was expected to go through in society. One can almost feel a quite contempt for the whole system that gave way to a text that was a few decades earlier than its time. It is here that the discussion will move to any personal experiences of Chopin’s that might be seen to have triggered her writings using the themes she did. Having been married at an early age, Chopin had six children and a husband who’s business did not do very well, forcing them to move to Cloutierville. Four years later Chopin had lost both her husband and her mother and her contempt for life may be seen to have sprung up from a continuous string of disappointments that ultimately materialized in her literary works not being accepted and published.
Chopin only took up writing later on in her life and found other avenues of channeling her grief, disappointment and contempt, of which flirting after the death of her husband is well known. It may not be wrong to deduce that Chopin failed to carry on her late husband’s business because she was a woman and as such it may not have been possible for her to embark on a successful commercial enterprise with six kids to look after. It is perhaps here-surrounded by the Creole culture-that Chopin found she was bound; bound by the need of her children, bound by the financial needs of her household, stuck with a business she may not have had any interest in and left alone to deal with the situation. The frustration may be seen to stem from the inability of the world around her recognize her as a worthy substitute to run her husband’s business, while she could opt for nothing better as long as she had children to take care of.
Relief was provided by her mother who impressed upon her once more to relocate to St. Louis where at least finances would not be a problem. It may well be seen that by then, Chopin had already had sufficient experience and time to absorb all around her and form her perceptions about it. This coupled with a marvelous ability to put life on paper later gave way to her works of art before us today. However, is it possible that Chopin is still not fully understood today in her works; her bitterness from her own experiences not interpreted to the full extent even today-translated in accordance with what we believe? What is the probability of the doctor making the same mistake along with everyone else upon Mrs. Mallard’s death? What was explained away as ‘joy that kills’ could perhaps have been the ‘joy that suddenly plummeted’ and thereby caused death?
Toth, Emily. “Reviews the essay’ The Shadows of the First Biographer: The Case of Kate Chopin.’ Southern Review 26 (1990).
The essay provides the researcher with an insight into the personal life of Chopin, allowing a glance at her personal experiences. The usage was considered necessary as it allows for a recognition of personal experiences that might have influences and caused the author to produce the work they did. This was one of the two primary aspects the essay was based on.
Buhle, Mari Jo. Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1981.
Reference to this work was necessary to understand what the women in America were going through and what caused them to insist upon their own rights. This marks the general shift of the zeitgeist to a point where women were able to eventually empower themselves and demand equal rights. The essay needed a backing of material that would allow a grasp of what it was that was wrong when it came to women’s rights.
Culley, Margaret, ed. The Awakening: An Authoritative Text Context Criticism.
One of the greatest works of the author in consideration is The Awakening which shares much with The Story of an Hour. It was therefore important to refer to valid contextual criticism to grasp what might also stand in the case of the short story at hand. As intended the reference provided material that allowed for the researcher to mark similarities between the author’s approach in both her works and therefore analyze them in a similar manner within the essay.
Humm, Maggie. 1978. The Dictionary of Feminist Theory. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, p. 251
Reference to the dictionary was made simply to identify between the different ‘waves’ of feminist movements to provide better background for the essay. Not only did this help with terminology but also with backdrop information that helped identify and relate the author’s feelings to the circumstances prevalent at her time.