“She was drinking in the very elixir of life” and for the first time Louise truly live, breathed, and existed in a society dominated by men, and in a her own world controlled by her husband. Louise Mallard is the central character to Kate Chopin’s short story “The Story of an Hour” and is offered to the reader as a reflection of the role of women in the late 18th century. Much of Kate Chopin’s work, like “The Story of an Hour”, explores gender related issues including marriage, divorce, and female sexuality (Chopin i) .
It is important to remember that Kate Chopin wrote in the wake of the transcendental movement in America. Literature was moving away from the deep thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson toward something more exciting and real. Realism in the early 1900s was about public interest and entertainment. Literature during this time told tales of hardships and successes in the frontier (Harris 6). Kate Chopin had a different approach to realism. Instead of exploring the unfamiliar external landscape of the great American west she examined the individual internal unknown. Writing about female discourse, addressing female roles in a male society, and offering again and again the female perspective on marriage, was not an easy task. Kate Chopin did it well with gracious and eloquent writing.
“The Story of an Hour” is a neatly packaged product of her feminist investigation. Through humor, wit, and skillfully used literary elements Chopin breathes life into the story of a woman completely controlled by her husband who experiences momentary freedom by sheer luck of a train accident. Chopin uses several symbols to evoke the feeling of rebirth, renewal, and autonomy. Just after Louise is told about the death of her husband, she enters her bedroom and finds “the open window.” Through it she can see “new spring life” on the street below, and realizes that now she too can be part of that life, on her own terms. The open window symbolizes her clear passage to exist fully in the world without her husband standing in her way. Louise hears and sees the “countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves”. Birds are a traditional icon of freedom (Woodlief). Chopin specific word choice, in the sentences following Louise briefly mourning her husband include – “monstrous joy“, “victory“, “Free! Body and soul free!”. All of which are not the usual emotions one would expect after hearing of the loss of a loved one. In the late 18th century a woman’s role was solely to care for her husband and children, never simply for herself. If a woman had no husband, she did not exist. Kate Chopin parallels this real life irony to the condition of Louise in the short story. Chopin is a master story teller and employs the use of irony seamlessly. In “The Story of an Hour” two forms of irony can be found – situation and dramatic irony.
Situational irony occurs when the reader expects for Louise to be full of grief about her husbands death. Yet, Louise responds “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!”. She is ecstatic not over her husband death but because she was in a marriage that required her to be subservient to her husband, to live only for him, and to bend to his will. Dramatic irony occurs when there is contrast between what the audience knows about a character and what the people within the story know about a character. After Louise dies, doctors came and “said she had died of heart disease–of a joy that kills.” The characters in the story believe that Louise died because of the sudden joy she felt at knowing her husband was still alive. The audience knows she died because she could not withstand another day of domination by her husband and the world – at freedom being ripped from her grasp.
The wordplay of pronouns and formal names is amazing in “The Story of an Hour.” Chopin begins the story but using Louise formal name, Mrs. Mallard. Louise is depicted by her married name or by the pronoun “she” until after her husband death and her realization that she would now “live for herself“. It is at this time, that Mrs. Mallard becomes Louise, and she addressed by Josephine, “”Louise, open the door! I beg; open the door–you will make yourself ill. What are you doing, Louise?”. After, Mr. Mallard reappears, Louise again becomes the possession of her husband and is denoted as “she” once again.
While Chopin does not literally express the setting of her short fiction, there are several indicators that do. Early in the story Mrs. Mallard has been told her husband was killed in a train disaster. The personal automobile was developed in 1886. Therefore, the story predates the use of automobile on a daily basis, leaving the train as the major mode of transportation for professionals traveling to and from the city for work.
When “The Story of an Hour” was first published it did not publicly appeal to anyone – at least to no one who would admit it. Literature with taboo subjects were read for the purposes of critique and public disproval. However, somewhere along the line Kate Chopin inspired other female authors to continue to write . Today, I think this story appeals to wide range of people and ages. People who feel that they are being controlled and are struggling to find their own path in the world – for high school students it maybe the constraints of their own peers, for college students the control and approval of their parents, for adults who are involved in relationships were they do not feel fulfilled – and anyone who has a lost a person they loved and felt a moment of joy for their own new beginning.