“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin is a short story about an hour in the main character, Mrs. Mallard’s, life. She is a young woman with heart trouble. When the bad news about her husband’s death arrives, her sister Josephine and her husband’s friend Richard have to break the horrifying news to her as gently as possible because they are concerned about her health. Ironically, Mrs. Mallard reacts to the news with excitement and feels free from the depressing marriage. She becomes happy because she does not have to live for anyone but herself now. However, at the end of the story, Mr. Mallard walks into the house and does not have the faintest idea about the accident. When Mrs. Mallard suddenly sees her husband appear, she dies of a heart attack. Chopin indicates the role of women in marriage is vulnerable, and argues that the unequal marriage in the 19th century grants men the right to own and dominate women. Women lost their identities, and had many struggles in their marriages. They wanted freedom but their power was limited. Therefore, female’s vulnerable position in marriages make them feel excited after their husband dies.
In the story, Chopin deals with the issues of female identities. Women belonged to their husbands in the late 19th century. Name is an important part in this story. In the beginning of the story, we know the main character’s name as Mrs. Mallard only. She is referred to as Mrs. Mallard or “she,” and after her husband returns home, she is referred to as “wife.” We do not know her real name until she hears of her husband’s death, when she is free from her marriage. In the 19th century, it was normal for a female to assume her husband’s name in marriage and become the property of the male. Women did not realize that a certain part of the self was lost, even if their husband’s loved them.
Chopin argues that women are not happy in their marriages because they feel the marriages are like cages that make them lose their freedom. The marriage makes Mrs. Mallard feel that is caged by her husband. Chopin writes that Mrs. Mallard believes “a kind intention or a cruel intention made the act [of marriage] seem no less a crime,” and after Louise knows of her husband’s death, she feels “Free! Body and soul free!” (Chopin 159). No matter if women were married to a kind man or cruel one, they did not feel happy. However, Louise is happy at that moment because she will have physical and psychological freedom during the coming years.
Chopin uses irony in the story to describe the heroine’s vulnerable position in her marriage. The first sentence of the story, “Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble” has double meanings (Chopin 158). Chopin mentions not only the medical condition, but also her spiritual condition. Mrs. Mallard is ill with worry, depression, unhappiness, and misery from her recent married life. She does not afflict with her physical condition only, but also psychological condition. When she realizes her new situation in her life, she realizes and “she said it over and over under her breath: ‘free, free, free!’” (Chopin 159). Her husband’s death makes her release her depression. Another irony is at the end of the story when the narrator states that Mrs. Mallard “had died of heart disease—of joy that kills” (Chopin 160). Other characters might all believe that her weak heart gave out upon the sudden happiness of her husband’s appearance. However, in fact, she dies of a combination of shock and disappointment. She sees her husband who has come back, and her freedom and excitement are gone. She has everything and nothing in the same moment and she cannot accept the huge shock that she has to go back to her old life like before.
Chopin’s depiction of the happiness for female self-assertion in the form of death seems immoral, but Chopin’s own experience tells us that women can live by herself, or even better than they live depend on men because they have freedom to choose the way they live. According to Chopin’s biography, her husband died in 1882, and she had to raise her six children. When she was nearly forty years old (1890), she published her first novel and became famous (Charters 153). Chopin creates a character that becomes happy and excited instead of sad after hearing of her husband’s death. This situation seems inhuman and evil. In Lawrence Berkove’s critical essay, he argues that the story’s heroine is “an immature egotist and a victim of her own extreme self-assertion” and questions “How, then, would she live” after her husband died (Berkove). He does not believe Mrs. Mallard can live by herself only. However, when Chopin’s husband died, she was still young, but she could be independent and live by herself without men. She was free for her life and did not have to pay any more attention to a man. She could concentrate on her literature and become a famous writer, and succeed with her fictions about female’s role and struggles.
Through “The Story of an Hour,” we get some ideas about women’s identities and their struggles in their marriages in the late 19th century. Women felt that they lost their freedom in their cage marriages. Mrs. Mallard’s tragedy is a good example to understand that women were unhappy and depressed in their marriages’ lives, and looked forward to having the power to fight against the firm male dominance.
Berkove, Lawrence L. “Fatal Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’.” American Literary Realism 32.2 (2000) 152-158. Academic search Premier. Web. 14 Sept. 2008.
Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. 7thed. Comp. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 153, 159-160.