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Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’ is a psychological exploration of one woman’s response to learning that her husband has just been killed in an accident. The story’s narrative twist is that it goes against the reader’s expectation that the woman, Mrs. Mallard, will be inconsolable. Rather, she has a persistent though of freedom. The woman’s reaction to both learning that her husband has been killed, and then later finding out he is actually alive, is therefore evidence of the oppression she endured throughout her marriage. As a result, the meaning of the text becomes clear that Mrs. Mallard was stifled throughout her marriage, and that the institution of marriage itself is responsible for her oppression.
The story’s structure follows the actions and thoughts of Mrs. Mallard, with minimal dialogue. As such, the third person descriptions provide a psychological account of Mrs. Mallard’s thoughts and behaviors. The story begins with Mrs. Mallard learning of the accident and weeping ‘with sudden, wild abandonment’, which indicates that Mrs. Mallard is not simply heartless nor uncaring. There are several indications that Mrs. Mallard cared for her husband: she thinks about how her husband had ‘kind, tender hands’ when thinking about the viewing that will occur, and that ‘she had loved him – sometimes’, although this is later followed with, ‘Often she had not’. These descriptions highlight how their relationship, at the very least, was not overly abusive or hostile. Her husband is not described in regard to how oppressive her husband must have been, but rather indications of the opposite. Instead, what seems to be apparent is that Mrs. Mallard was not passionate about her husband, and even though there were moments of love, this was not a pervasive characteristic about their relationship.
By focusing on how her husband was essentially kind to her, Chopin is showing how the specific relationship between the two is what ultimately oppressed Mrs. Mallard, as if had her husband been a different man, she would have had a greater sense of loss; rather, the marriage between them can be understood as fairly typical and relatable by many other couples. This indicates how the institution of marriage, and not her specific husband, is responsible for her sense of being stifled.
Before Mrs. Mallard has the realization that she is free, Chopin uses descriptive imagery to indicate her internal state. As Mrs. Mallard sits in her room, she sees the trees as being ‘aquiver with the new spring life’. She then begins to feel a force run through her, ‘this thing that was approaching to possess her’, which she recognizes soon after as the intense joy of freedom. This causes her to say out loud, ‘Free! Body and soul free!’ Through the way this realization unfolds, Chopin is showing how her feelings are not the result of careful deliberation or that her emotional reaction was a choice; rather, this is a feeling that comes over her and overwhelms her, to the point where she is genuinely surprised at how she feels.
What Chopin is showing us is that Mrs. Mallard had simply come to accept her fate, as a prisoner might simply accept a lifelong sentence. Because Mrs. Mallard is overwhelmed by her newfound freedom shows us how she had simply accepted her fate of being a married woman, without questioning whether she even had a choice to not be married. This shows how many viewed the institution of marriage at the time: that it was a lifelong choice no matter what, even if it resulted in one or both persons being unhappy. Mrs. Mallard reacts in the same way a prisoner might view unexpected freedom.
Once Mrs. Mallard realizes her freedom, she begins fantasizing about ‘Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own’. By using this language, Chopin is revealing that Mrs. Mallard previously viewed all of her days as belonging to either her husband, or the marriage itself. She had no free time for herself, as keeping her marriage going despite not being deeply in love with her husband was the only thing that mattered. This causes Mrs. Mallard to suddenly become excited, and feel as though she has been reborn. Even though her husband was not overtly cruel and had cared for her, the relationship itself was stifling for Mrs. Mallard, who had no choice but to go along with the marriage because that is what society expects. With her husband’s sudden death, she is freed from this societal obligation, and begins to feel renewed.
The narrative twist of the story’s ending is when she realizes that a mistake has been made, and her husband is actually alive. When she sees him at the bottom of the stairs, she presumably has a heart attack. Although the doctors diagnose this as a ‘joy that kills’, the reader realizes that the opposite has occurred: that her joy was caused by identifying a new sense of freedom independent of marriage, and when this is taken away from her, she actually fears once again becoming imprisoned by this societal institution.
This realization is too much for her, as she had been given a taste of freedom, and suddenly had that freedom ripped away. Although she had previously lived under this oppressive system, she did not realize how oppressed and stifled she truly felt. Once this realization became known to her, the thought of going back to this marriage was simply too much for her to bear. Thus, the story highlights how the institution of marriage was ultimately stifling, and ultimately caused more suffering than good.
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