Literary essay on Kate Chopin's The Story of an Hour
Readers of Kate Chopin’s short story, “The Story of an Hour,” may have strong opinions about Louise Mallard. Some may think she is a ruthless, evil witch who delights in the sudden death of her husband, but the evidence in the text does not support that reading. Others may say she is a woman so horribly oppressed by her husband that his death is a relief, but that is not supported by the textual evidence either. What readers know is that Louise is a woman who feels as if she is not free while her husband lives, and she wants to be free. She did not wish for his death, but when she hears news of it, she cannot help but feel some joy mixed with the sorrow that one expects a new widow to feel. The story is not about the oppression of wives by husbands or of women by men in general; it is about the oppression of society that judges a woman who does not conform to the standards that many expect. The surprise twist at the end illustrates how serious that oppression can be.
Louise learns of her husband, Brently’s, death and reacts as one would expect that she would. “She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone” (Chopin). In the opening line of the story, readers learn Louise has heart trouble of an unspecified type. Some readers may assume that her “heart problems” are that she is not sufficiently saddened to learn of her husband’s death because after going to her room to be alone, she has an epiphany: “She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will--as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been. When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: "free, free, free!" (Chopin). Louise is not just a heartless woman and her heart trouble is not that she does not care for her husband. After all, she “strives to beat it back,” but she cannot. She knows that she may be judged by society for feeling this way, but she cannot help it.
This epiphany that she is free brings her joy. She is still mourning her husband, but the reality of a life without him is sinking in, and the main feature is that she will have enough money to live on and no one to control the way she lives. She will be completely autonomous, a rarity in the historical context of the story. Selina Jamil of The Explicator says, “Until her moment of illumination, Mrs. Mallard’s emotions have been stifled and suppressed to fit into the mold of hollow social conventions. As Chopin implies, Mrs. Mallard’s ‘heart trouble’ is not so much a physical ailment, as the other characters in the story think, as a sign of a woman who has unconsciously surrendered her heart (i.e., her identity as an individual) to the culture of paternalism” (Jamil 216). Jamil calls Louise’s epiphany, self-assertion. Because Louise realizes she has no one to answer to anymore, she can now assert herself without being corrected by the man who society believes should take responsibility for her.
Some would argue that readers cannot really assume anything about what it is that Louise sees and feels as she sits alone in her room on the day she believes her husband has died. All that is available are the meaning-packed sentences of the short story narrated by the omniscient narrator. Lawrence Berkove of American Literary Realism says the narrator cannot be trusted as reliable. “While the text enables us to make certain inferences about Louise, it does not supply us with any information about the truth of her life except her perceptions, and these, as I intend to show, are unreliable and, insofar as they are taken as the statements of the story's omniscient narrator, misleading and contradicted by other textual evidence” (Berkove 153). However, an omniscient narrator, by definition, knows all about everything that occurs in the story, so readers must take Louise’s perceptions as truth because the all-knowing narrator says they are: “She saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome” (Chopin). Louise feels that without her husband, there is no one to whom she must answer, ask permission of, or to bend her will to match his as she had to do while he was alive, just as the narrator says.
This is what brings such joy to a woman representative of the nineteenth century middle class wife. Today, perhaps a woman would not have such a moment of joy because if she were married, it would be by choice and not because she had limited options for survival as was the case in the nineteenth century. Louise saw her future without dependence on Brently, or any other man. Today a woman might have this type of emotional reaction if she suddenly learned she was going to get equal to the men she works with. Women have already achieved independence, but not equality. When Chopin was alive, women could not be independent because they had few ways to support themselves. Equality was probably so far from being realized women could not even imagine it. Marriage, in the nineteenth century, was a good option, but it meant that a woman must set aside her own will in favor of her husband’s because patriarchal society dictated it so.
Louise, of course, is not the only woman in the story. There is also her sister, Josephine, who readers know little about, yet she plays a crucial role in the story. Xuemei Wan of English Language Teaching says, “Louise Mallard was among that kind of women who were different from the traditional ones such as her sister. Facing the unexpectedly bad news, she was of course sad, however, at the same time she felt free, body and soul free. Her sister, Josephine, reminded us of her conventional thought that women should attach themselves to their husbands” (Wan 168). Josephine may never have had the same revelation that Louise had if it had been her husband who had been reported killed in a train accident. She would have mourned, but she may not have come to the realization that her husband’s death meant that she could now govern her own life for as long as it lasted.
Berkove believes that Louise is unstable, partly because of her heart condition, and partly because he implies that she is not mentally stable either. This criticism echoes the belief of the nineteenth and early twentieth century that women were hysterical if they did not comply with the demands of society. Berkove alleges, “What Chopin is doing, very subtly, is depicting Louise in the early stages of the delusion that is perturbing her precariously unstable health by aggravating her pathological heart condition. The ‘monstrous’ surge of joy she experiences is both the cause and first sign of a fatal overload to her feeble heart” (Berkove 156). In other words, because Louise does not stop to question whether she is a monster for feeling joy at the death of her husband, Berkove believes she is mentally insane—perhaps hysterical. However, he has no contextual evidence on which to base that assertion. He can claim that the narrator is unreliable, but the only instances of unreliability in the text are that of the news that Brently is dead brought by Richards, and the fact that Brently was not on the train on which he was scheduled to be. Both of the unreliable sources are male. One could speculate the reasons why “[Brently] had been far from the scene of the accident, and did not even know there had been one” (Chopin). It may be that it was his unreliability as a husband that caused him to not be where he was supposed to be. Whatever it was, as soon as Louise saw him and knew that she remained in her dependent condition, she could not bear the thought of living in that way any longer.
The hour she spends in her room believing she is an independent woman was probably one of the most joyous of her life. Her heart trouble is not that she is evil; it is that she is stifled by compliance to society’s dictates and the will of her husband. Gaining freedom from those constraints even for such a brief time brought her great joy, and when that joy is taken from her, it is more than she can bear, so she dies. Of course Brently, Josephine and Richards thought she died from the shock of seeing her husband who she believed dead, but she really died from realizing that her hour of freedom was over for the rest of her life.
Berkove, Lawrence I. "Fatal Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin's" The Story of an Hour"." American Literary Realism 32.2 (2000): 152-158. Google Scholar. 12 October 2019. http://seekenglish130fall2016s....
Chopin, Kate. "The Story of an Hour." Vogue Magazine. Vogue, 1894. Web. 12 October 2019. https://archive.vcu.edu/englis....
Jamil, S. Selina. "Emotions in the Story of an Hour." The Explicator 67.3 (2009): 215-220. Google Scholar. 12 October 2019. https://www.sabanciuniv.edu/Ha....
Wan, Xuemei. "Kate Chopin's View on Death and Freedom in "The Story of an Hour"." English Language Teaching 2.4 (2009): 167-170. ERIC. 12 October 2019. https://files.eric.ed.gov/full....