Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” has intrigued me since I first read it in a freshman short story class in college. As a huge fan of The Awakening I naturally fell in love with this story. I think that what really draws me to Chopin’s work is that she embraces feminist ideas without taking them too far; she illustrates the lives and needs of women without making them seem as though they want equality so badly that they will go to unequal extremes to get it (obviously, I am petrified of “Feminazis”). I wrote a 7 page analysis about this story for the class that I took and was ready to post it, in lieu of rewriting my ideas, but I have decided to save you from not only the literary theory aspect of the story (Damn patriarchal societies! Just let women LIVE!) (Ok, I lied, there will be some theory) but also from the writing, which I am proud to say has drastically improved over the last 5 years.
So, here is my take. Or, rather, the abridged version (however, if any readers are interested in literary theory it happens to be something that I love, so comment away!).
Highly interesting, right from the beginning, is the fact that although Richard rushes to tell Louise the news of Brently’s death before anyone else can, her sister Josephine is actually the one who reveals it to her in “veiled hints.” Seen from a theoretical perspective, it has to be this way– I mean, how ironic would it be for a man to tell Louise that she is free from a patriarchal institution? And of course they can’t just come out and say it, her troubled, weak heart and feminine disposition would not be able to handle the stress!
Or would it? Once Louise is able to sit down by herself she realizes that her reaction to the news of her husband’s death is not at all what would be expected. Due to the social constraints forced upon her she feels guilty for actually looking forward to a life of her own, without a husband by her side. She fights back the feeling of freedom that his death evokes, but she soon embraces it and realizes that life, on her terms, is worth living. Brently’s death (of course a symbol of the repressive society) is not the end of the world and, really, has nothing but positive effects on Louise as an individual, which she undoubtably feels she is for the first time in her life (But that little tidbit is simply speculation, she could have dreamt of this day for years. Who knows.). She slowly begins to see the potential in life: “There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds.” A shift in the diction of the story mirrors her own change in thought– imagery symbolizing rebirth pours through the window from the natural world outside. This image, too, symbolizes the difference between the false, patriarchal society that rules the inside of the home and the natural, free world which lies beyond its confines.
When the true power of emotional freedom comes crashing upon her, Louise hardly knows what to do with herself. In fact, this situation is so foreign to her that she has to step out of her own perspective to accept it: “When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips.” Even then, even when she has stepped away, she only slightly opens her mouth to recognize the freedom that is now hers with a mere whisper. Here, though, her heart starts to speed up, and you readers should become concerned since this particular organ of hers is troubled.
Something that is interesting about this section is that love, as an idea, is slightly devalued (I leave it up to you, readers, to decide if “slightly” is a proper qualifier for what’s really going on. Could it be love itself that is devalued, or just her life with a man she only sometimes cared for?). Louise realizes that she both loved Brently and she didn’t, depending on the day, but that it is of no consequence. Louise, as a person, as a woman, as an individual, is the important thing here, not her relationship with a man:
“And yet she had loved him– sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter! What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being.”
After embracing a new sense of freedom and enduring an immense paradigm shift, Louise is ready to take on the world. She leaves the room and takes her first steps out into the world as a single woman, as a free woman. Of course, Brently has to actually walk through the door, alive (how could he!), and cause Louise’s frail heart to give out and for this newly self-identified woman to drop dead at the sight of him.
Just kidding. I like men– I just don’t like oppressive social structures.
Now, this is where the story gets good, and where Chopin displays her phenomenal writing chops. Consider the last eight lines of the story:
“Some one was opening the front door with a latchkey. It was Brently Mallard, who entered, a little travel-stained, composedly carrying his gripsack and umbrella. He had been far from the scene of the accident, and did not even know there had been one. He stood amazed at Josephine’s piercing cry; at Richards’ quick motion to screen him from the view of his wife.
But Richards was too late.
When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease– of joy that kills.”
First, who is it that Richards is trying to protect? Louise or Brently? The syntax of the sentence could go either way, but there is one line that provides a big clue: “But Richards was too late.” He was too late because Louise is dead, meaning that he could not protect her, meaning that she is the one he was trying to shield.
Second, what is it that really killed Louise? Joy, of course, but was it the joy at seeing her husband alive, or the joy of her new life unfolding before her? During the research I conducted for the paper (and by research I mean my expert use of Google), I came across an article by Mark Cunningham (I believe it is the one entitled “The Autonomous Female Self and the Death of Louise Mallard in Kate Chopin’s ‘Story of an Hour’”) in which he stated: “The reader cannot be certain that Louise sees Brently’s return.”
Touché, Mr. Cunningham.
So, readers, what do you think? I personally feel that Mr. Cunningham’s comment has some validity, but the fact that the text claims “Richards was too late” means that he failed at what he was trying to do– at trying to screen Louise from the sight of her husband. Clearly, should he have been trying to shield Brently from the sight of his wife, he would not be too late because Brently is (still) alive and well.
This leaves, according to my analysis, only two possible causes of death for poor Mrs. Mallard: 1. heart failure due to the intense emotions she had experienced during her realization that she was free and 2. heart failure due to the disappointment at finding that her husband is really alive. The final words of the story, though, tie my theory up into a nice little bow: “she had died of heart disease– of joy that kills.” Although everyone else in the room may have thought the joy to be a reaction to the sight of her husband, readers know that the joy has its roots not in her return to the patriarchal society of her time, but in her escape from it.