Following the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, American women were inspired to advocate for their own personal freedoms. Women’s organizations were founded to promote suffrage, employment opportunities, and property rights for women. However, others still argued that a woman’s place was in the home as a wife and mother. This division encouraged women to reevaluate their role in society and traditional marriage (Library of Congress para. 2). In her short story, “The Story of an Hour,” Kate Chopin employs a bird motif to criticize gender roles in the late nineteenth century and advocate for the feminist movement.
Chopin’s motif regarding birds illustrates character development for Mrs. Mallard. The most prominent reference is in her married name. A mallard is a type of bird, specifically a duck. For mallards, courting occurs during the winter. The females will build the nest on the ground, incubate the eggs, and care for the ducklings. This is representative of conventional gender roles because women have been expected to assume the lowly role of a housewife. While mallards are primarily monogamous, the males may force relations with other females. This supports the notion that Mrs. Mallard had no control in her marriage, in which her husband was dominant. After mating season, female mallards will shed feathers, entering a stage of flightless vulnerability for three to four weeks (Cornell Lab of Ornithology “Mallard”). This is a striking resemblance to Mrs. Mallard’s loss of freedom once she was married. However, mallards are actually extremely powerful fliers, which suggests that Mrs. Mallard may be able to return to a state of independence.
Upon receiving the news of her husband’s death, Mrs. Mallard mourns briefly, as expected, but her attention is quickly redirected to a window across the room. She watches nature thrive in the spring, a season of rebirth. This foreshadows a rejuvenating transformation for Mrs. Mallard; she is no longer trapped in the mallard’s winter. Chopin includes that “countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves” (Chopin para. 4). These sparrows represent a community of women who are supporting Mrs. Mallard’s strive for independence. They hang on the edge of the house, representing self-sufficient women who live on the edge of societal norms. Because they are in the eaves, Mrs. Mallard is unable to see them. However, she senses their presence through their “twittering.” Twittering describes bird sounds that are imitative in nature (Online Etymology Dictionary). These imitative calls suggest that there are women who have experienced the same marital struggles as Mrs. Mallard. Sparrows often displace native birds from their nests, just as these women encourage Mrs. Mallard to abandon her domestic life in the home and join their feminist flock (Cornell Lab of Ornithology “House Sparrow”).
Mrs. Mallard experiences a moment of self-actualization. This is described as a physical altercation with herself. Her body trembled as she underwent an internal conflict. Her desire for freedom battled her instinct to conform to traditional gender roles. Once she gave in to the idea of independence, she repeated, “free, free, free!” (Chopin para. 10). This repetition mirrors the mimicking of the sparrows. Like a bird being released from its cage, Mrs. Mallard finally feels freedom from the captivity of her marriage. She seizes control of her own life. Her “pulses beat fast” (Chopin para. 10). The word “beat” correlates to the motion of a bird’s wings. Mrs. Mallard is no longer a flightless duck, but a powerful sparrow. Moving forward, Mrs. Mallard will be addressed by her first name, Louise. This emphasizes her severance from married life. The name “Louise” is the feminine form of the name “Louis,” a name that is primarily associated with French royalty (Behind the Name “Louise” para. 1). Most prominently, King Louis XIV deemed himself the “Sun King” when he reigned at the peak of France’s power (Behind the Name “Louis” para. 1). Conclusively, this suggests that Louise has replaced the male figure in her life herself, assuming all authority.
After her radical transformation, Louise gains a “clear and exalted perception” from her newfound flying capabilities (Chopin para. 11). This is her self-realization, as she now recognizes opportunity to live a vastly different life. Louise anticipates years on her own, and she “spread her arms out to them in welcome” (Chopin para. 12). This imagery corresponds to a bird spreading its wings. It indicates that she has finally accepted her independence. She states that people will no longer “have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature” (Chopin para. 13). This is particularly powerful, because she explicitly states her abandonment of societal expectation. With the end of her marriage, she does not feel obligated to consider the opinion of others. The term “fellow-creature” is especially compelling, because it humbles all people to the same animalistic status. Chopin reinforces her reference to birds, but she also dismisses the patriarchal structure of society. If she is viewed as an equal, then the opinions of others have no authority over her aspirations.
Chopin’s striking irony is Louise’s sudden death after she contemplates a long, prosperous life as a widow. Louise descends the stairs of her home, which symbolically lowers her status in society once again. She finds that her husband has returned alive, stripping her newfound freedoms from her. Ultimately, this causes a physical and figurative death. Louise compares herself to the “goddess of Victory” (Chopin para. 19). In Greek mythology, the goddess of Victory is Nike. Nike represents victory over war, which is traditionally a man’s domain. This emphasizes the notion that Louise was able to defeat the restrictive gender roles. Like a mallard or sparrow, Nike is typically portrayed with wings (Britannica para. 2). Upon her husband’s absence, Louise was able to gain wings of independence, but they quickly dissipate with his return.
Chopin’s recurring motif of birds provides powerful imagery that details her experiences with conventional marriage. By comparing a wife to a mallard, she is commenting on the lack of freedoms for women. However, in the absence of her husband, Mrs. Mallard is able to recognize a community of women who have felt a similar conflict. This is Chopin’s support for the feminist movement in the late nineteenth century as they advocate for economic and personal liberties. With Louise’s inevitable death, her hope is somewhat dissipated. Chopin glances into a moment of redemption for women, but ultimately suggests that it may be impossible to truly escape the patriarchal structure of society. These concepts translate to modern-day society and the feminist movement. Women now have the fundamental right to vote, make economic decisions, and pursue any career they desire. They are increasingly pushing the boundaries of traditional gender roles. Most recently, Kamala Harris was elected the first female vice president of the United States. Regardless of political policy, representation is crucial. Madam Vice President inspires young girls to challenge gender norms. However, women still experience discrimination and many professions remain dominated by men. While progress has been made for gender equality, there is still work to be done.
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