Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” describes a woman trapped in her marriage until she is suddenly given the news of her husband’s untimely death. Written in 1894, this story is an expression of the contemporary feminist movements, as Chopin uses the plot, characters and language to comment on marriage and women’s desire for independence. In the story line, the main character, Mrs. Mallard, experiences a dramatic turning point in her life after her husband’s passing. Chopin’s description of this intense emotional experience and the evolution of how she names Mrs. Mallard throughout the story challenges the views of gender and marriage at the time.
Kate Chopin was born into a society in which men and women inhabited “separate spheres.” Women were meant to stay in the domestic sphere of keeping the home and being a wife and mother, while men occupied the public sphere of trade, business and government (Lewis para. 2). However, despite this prevailing cultural norm, women’s rights movements were beginning to pop up around her. With all the cultural and political issues surrounding her, it is no wonder Chopin used her gift of writing to comment on and question the ideals of marriage at this time.
When Mrs. Mallard first learns about her husband’s death, she is devastated. However, all of a sudden there is a moment when thoughts start to creep into Mrs. Mallard’s mind of the freedom she could have without her husband. Chopin creates a scene in which Mrs. Mallard is almost afraid that these thoughts of freedom have entered her head. Intense language evokes a sense of suspense as Mrs. Mallard comes to the realization that her life may be better off without her husband. Chopin describes these thoughts as “subtle”, “elusive” and “creeping out of the sky” (Chopin para. 8). Mrs. Mallard had probably always imagined her life playing out in the typical path of most women of the time period. So, when her husband passed, Chopin describes her thoughts in this creepy and sly manner because Mrs. Mallard must have been surprised to discover such feelings that her life might become more than the constraints of her marriage. Such a revelation would have been significant to a woman of this era, and the language of this turning point in the story reflects that.
After Mrs. Mallard begins to realize the possibilities of her new life as an independent woman, the whole emotional language and attitude towards her husband’s death changes. Initially Chopin describes Mrs. Mallard as having “wept at once, with a sudden, wild abandonment” (Chopin para. 2). This intense emotion switches to one of hope and wistfulness when Mrs. Mallard realizes what her husband’s death could mean for her as an individual separate from him. When Mrs. Mallard considers that new possibilities lie before her, Chopin describes her state, “Her pulse beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body” (Chopin para. 10). The intensity of these two emotional responses illustrates how important the turning point was for her. In this pivotal moment, the language shows that the narrative concerning her husband’s death has changed rather quickly from one of great grief to one of new opportunities for her as an individual. This moments significance can be shown by the stark contrast in how she felt before her realization versus now. These intense emotions can be expected of a woman in a patriarchal society.
Louise Mallard’s name can also be seen as significant as she sits by the open window thinking of her new life following her husband’s death. Chopin writes, “She was drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window” (Chopin para. 17). Giving Louise a last name that is a type of duck and intentionally placing her in front of an open window gives this moment a sense of freedom and escape. It seems that Louise Mallard has been this bird her whole life but is now finally realizing her potential and is ready to fly out that open window.
The time period in which this story was written likely had a large impact on Chopin’s writing. From the intense emotional swings to the significance of Louise Mallard’s name, the theme conveys the constraints of marriage and challenges the ideals that most people of that time would have held about marriage or the role of a woman. For that reason, this story not only pushed boundaries but also nudged people of this era to think outside of their separate spheres. This still applies to women’s movements today as we strive to defy gender roles. In today’s society even more women are working outside the home, but they still face modern day challenges like gender stereotypes and the fight for equal pay.
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