Kate Chopin’s short story “The Story of an Hour” doesn’t have a lot of action in it. But the story tells a lot about how people felt about each other during the time the story was written. The story is about a woman, named Louise Mallard, who is at home one day when her sister comes and tells her that her husband has been killed in a train crash. The sister is concerned because Louise is not physically strong and has a weak heart.
Even though everyone is concerned about how Louise will take the news, her real response would have been considered horrible in polite society but recognizable in private. Women during this time period didn’t have much freedom of choice in their lives unless they were left wealthy widows. They usually felt trapped in their lives and somehow dead inside. These ideas of the female identity are shown through the character Louise Mallard. The way she first reacts to the news shows the expected social response, the way her body starts to come to life in front of the bedroom window shows her natural response and her death at the feet of her husband shows what this kind of male control over women is doing to their souls.
The story starts by explaining that Mrs. Mallard is known for having a very weak heart. This is made clear in the detail and care that her sister and friend take in bringing the news to her. Although they were expecting her to grieve, they were still surprised a little bit when “She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms” (Chopin, 1897: 3). The words ‘wild abandonment’ hint that there is some mania or craziness to her crying that surprises her sister.
This makes the sister worried about Louise’s mental state once she discovers that Louise has locked herself in her bedroom. The sad thing happens while Louise is sitting in front of her bedroom window. While she thinks of her life with her husband, which she thinks is now over forever, she starts to realize her real feelings that she hasn’t thought about or considered for her whole marriage. “And yet she had loved him – sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter?” (Chopin, 1897).
This thought indicates that it really didn’t matter whether women actually felt anything for their husbands as long as they fulfilled their gender expectations. While she begins to realize that she has her own feelings, Louise is also starting to realize that she will have much more opportunity in the future to stay in touch with these feelings and experience a more fulfilling life.
The idea that she will be able to experience her own feelings then starts to grow while Louise is sitting in her chair. There is a “subtle and elusive” something “creeping out of the sky” which Louise finally identifies as freedom. She is understandably terrified of being left alone in the world but this terror is quickly lost under the feelings of joy as she starts to realize that she’s free. This prompts her natural reaction to begin. “The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes.
They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body” (Chopin, 1897). Although she has just discovered her husband is dead, Louise is so overwhelmed by freedom that she is able to quickly accept her new status and begins making plans of her own. “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, 1897).
After she has had this natural response to the news that her husband is dead, Louise is suddenly and vibrantly alive, which makes the ending so much more shocking. When she finally opens the door for her sister, Louise’s “fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her. Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long” (Chopin, 1897).
Even though she is more alive now than she has ever been, Louise hasn’t even made it all the way down the stairs as a widow before her husband, who wasn’t on the train and had no idea of the accident, comes walking through the front door. His appearance suddenly snatches Louise’s newfound freedom away from her and she dies in grief at his feet, still the subjected woman. This death symbolized the inner deaths of countless women forced to submit their individuality under the rule of men and society.
This story shows how even though not much time has passed, a lot of internal action can happen. Louise Mallard symbolizes all women in her time who usually didn’t have any acceptable options other than submit to the men who felt they should be able to determine the proper role women should play in life. Louise demonstrates these expectations at the beginning of the story, but then she moves into a more natural reaction that shows the joy of self-realization. Once she found it, she could not survive the thought of subduing it again and she died. “The Story of an Hour” reveals a lot about what women’s conditions were in life.
Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.” (1897). Printed in Mercury Reader. Melanie Rubens. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.