“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, American (1850-1904)
“Great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.”
I have read Kate Chopin’s short story, “The Story of an Hour,” many times, every time with the same “wild abandonment” as Louise Mallard, the story’s protagonist. I pretend not to have read it before, relishing each word with fresh eyes and an open mind, yet preparing myself for the shocking, realistic ending. I am in awe of Chopin’s skill in drawing me into Mrs. Mallard’s life, even for an hour, taking me on an emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride.
When the story opens, we learn of Mrs. Mallard’s heart trouble, her sister Josephine’s “veiled hints,” and her husband’s friend, Richards, “bearing the sad message.” After weeping on her sister’s shoulder, Mrs. Mallard retires to her room alone. She sits in an armchair in front of an open window.
“She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below, a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.”
It is interesting that in light of her terrible news, the world outside Mrs. Mallard’s room is bright and cheerful: it is spring, a time for rebirth. She sees patches of blue sky in the distance. Can she escape into that world, grasp it with open arms, and start over? She senses an elusive, unconscious feeling welling up inside her, “this thing that was approaching to possess her.” She tries to resist it. Mrs. Mallard’s true feelings become apparent when she whispers the word “over and over under her breath: Free, free, free!” We are shocked to discover that Mrs. Mallard’s emotional reaction to her husband’s death stems from an insatiable desire for freedom. Chopin writes: “And yet she had loved him–sometimes.”
The “monstrous joy” Louise Mallard feels is understandable: “She would live for herself,” escaping her husband’s “powerful will,” molding her into his version of a loving wife. She feels his control over her was somehow a crime, and she resents it. She envisions a new life for herself. She repeats, “Free! Body and soul free!” When she finally leaves her room to join Josephine and Richards downstairs, Mrs. Mallard has to endure one final shock. She hears someone opening the front door.
“It was Brently Mallard who entered, a little travel-stained, composedly carrying his grip-sack 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.”
Every time I read Chopin’s surprise ending, I cannot help feeling sad for Louise Mallard. She does not die of joy; she dies of shock and despair. The irony is that Josephine, Richards, and the doctors assume her joy is too much to bear. Is Mrs. Mallard being punished for wishing to be free of her husband? If the situation were reversed, would Mr. Mallard feel the same way? Is Mrs. Mallard a disloyal wife or a victim? Of course, Chopin never judges Mrs. Mallard, but every reader will, depending on his or her values, experiences, or opinions about marriage.
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Sarah M. Fredericks © 2015
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