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Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour is a feminist parable criticizing the romantic ideal of “true love” and the benefits of marriage. Chopin presents her critique of marriage by using the final hour in the life of Louise Mallard, whose joyful response to her husband’s supposed death conveys the idea that freedom is more important than love. Chopin expresses this theme in the narrative when Louise realizes that she will be freed in the absence of her husband: “what could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in the face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being” (175). Chopin uses her story’s setting to reinforce the direct characterization of Louise as a woman who desperately wants to be free, suggesting that marriage is a kind of prison, and that a married person is not unlike a prisoner. The story’s symbolic setting conveys the absence of freedom in Louise’s marriage, her intense feelings of emotional rebirth, and her sudden shock at her husband’s return.
The story’s extremely confined setting helps to convey Louise’s restricted life in her marriage with her husband, Brently. The entire story takes place within Louise’s home, suggesting the traditional belief that the home is the “proper” place for a woman. Furthermore, most of the story takes place in Louise’s bedroom, suggesting her entrapment. During the last hour of her life, her only major physical movements are to enter her room after the story begins, and to leave her room just before the story ends. In neither case does Louise move very far, and her final movement before death takes her just a few feet from her room, to the staircase. These limited movements reflect her equally limited life as a married woman.
Louise’s husband had “never looked save with love upon her” (174-175), but like many spouses, he believed that he had “a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature” (175). Louise does not care about Brently’s motivation; what concerns her is that he denied her the freedom to make her own choices: “A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act [of imposing his will on her] seem no less a crime in that belief moment of illumination” (175). The limited life that Louise has led under her husband’s control has turned her into his prisoner rather than his equal partner, and, like most prisoners, she is closely watched. Although her room seems to be the only place where she can be alone, her sister Josephine does not allow Louise even this small space for herself. Instead, Josephine kneels before Louise’s “closed door with her lips to the keyhole, imploring for admission” (175). Josephine’s actions suggest how closely Louise’s family has always watched her, with “the blind persistence” (175) of people who believe that they have a right to control others.
Other details of the setting help to convey Louise’s joyful feeling of freedom after learning of her husband’s death. The “comfortable, roomy armchair” (174) suggests that her room is her own, private place where she can relax and be “herself”. This chair faces an “open window” (174), symbolizing the new possibilities that Louise believes are awaiting her, and the scene outside this open window reinforces this symbolism while further suggesting that Louise is experiencing an emotional rebirth. Outside her window, she can see “in the open square before her house the tops of trees that [are] all aquiver with the new spring life” (174). Spring, of course, is the season when all nature is “reborn”. Moreover, the quivering trees with fresh sap running through their branches are likened to Louise herself: “Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body” (174). Similarly, the “delicious breath of rain” (174) in the air recalls the joyful feeling of freedom within Louise as she looks towards her future.
However, two details in the scene outside Louise’s open window foreshadow the death that awaits her. In a separate paragraph that sets these details apart from the rest of the description, the narrator states, “There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled above the other in the west facing her window” (174). Like the open window and the open square, the “patches of blue sky” suggest freedom. However, the clouds are a negative image, and foreshadow the “cloud” of depression that overwhelms Louise when she realizes that her husband is still alive and that she is still his prisoner. Furthermore, although Louise’s window is “open”, it faces the west – the direction of the sunset, not the sunrise. A sunset is a conventional symbol of death and dying, so this detail hints that Louise’s belief in her new freedom and in “all sorts of days that [will] be her own” (175) is only an illusion.
The ending of the story confirms this hint when Brently unexpectedly returns home. Once again, the details of the setting are important in characterizing Louise and suggesting the story’s theme. After Louise leaves her room and begins to descend the stairs – like a prisoner, she is escorted by a “guard”, Josephine – her front door opens and Brently appears in the doorway “at the bottom” (175) of the stairs. Within a fraction of a second, Louise sinks from the height of joy (symbolized by her husband’s position at the bottom of the staircase). Thus, her physical descent down the stairs symbolizes her emotional descent from her joyful fantasy of freedom into her depressing awareness of entrapment. Her doctors, who are most likely male, assume that she is a happily married woman who dies “of the joy that kills” (175), but the reader knows the truth: Louise dies of the shock and despair that overwhelm her when she realizes she will never experience her dream of freedom. As long as her husband is alive, she will have no “open window” or “blue sky” in her life, experiencing only obedience to his will and the “repression” (Chopin 174) of her true feelings.
Chopin uses the setting in The Story of an Hour to characterize Louise as a woman who feels trapped by her marriage and who, like a condemned prisoner, longs for her freedom. The setting’s limited nature reflects Louise’s limited life as a married woman, while the beautiful spring day outside her open window symbolizes her desire for rebirth. The fact that her open window faces west, however, foreshadows the illusory nature of her joy, and her sudden death dramatically reinforces this suggestion by emphasizing the story’s theme: for women, marriage without freedom is an inescapable prison.
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