A Critical Analysis of “Story of an Hour
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Kate Chopin: A Critical Analysis of “Story of an Hour”
For a long time, girls grew up looking forward to marriage to a man who could offer them a life they desired, one of comfort and love. Kate Chopin authored the book, “Story of an Hour” in which she extrapolates her standpoint on marriage and its impact on women’s lives relative to the 19th Century patriarchal setting (Levine 542-544). As more people were empowered to read and write in the course of the Victorian Era, a unique class of authors, intent on painting vivid ideas and imaginations on paper savored the opportunities presented. Kate Chopin as one of the late 19th Century writers took to a distinctive style that illuminated what was on her mind relative to the society. The “Story of an Hour” was in essence an Avant-garde piece of literature as it contravened aspects of the modest Victorian way of life previously held as sacred. There was a lack of open minded critics who failed to comprehend her unique style of thought. It is an irony ridden narrative leading to a conclusion that the idea of a free woman is as vague as a fantasy. However, one trait of Chopin’s work stands out against the male dominated society; the daring call for the emancipation of woman. Her clarion cry reaches out to women to look beyond their roles as wives towards bearing a unique self-identity and freedom even in the confines of marriage.
To most of her audiences, the book was not acknowledged with the respect deserved since her diction stirred up intellectual discourses concerning the married especially women as independent beings. She displays the wife as a woman desiring a unique self-identity and personal freedom even within the confines of the institution. It appears that the dominant gender generated and cemented a situation where women would be forever relegated to being secondary participants in all spheres of society. Socially, economically, politically, and more so, culturally, women were deemed and are still judged to gain identity from their relationship to a man. Chopin’s short story brings to fore a radical understanding of relationship between death of a spouse, freedom, self-identity, and female confinement in marriage in the 19th Century by taking on a predominantly feminist standpoint.
For a person to gain as sense of self, she has to muster own emotional senses and bring them to the submission of her will. Once emotions are under control, it is possible to exude a level of brilliance in the physical form that is in tune with the natural order of things. On the other hand, an individual whose emotions are subjugated not from own free will but as a result of external influences is not only physically frail but also dull in the manner with which they go about life. Kate Chopin introduces Mrs., Mallard as an emotionally docile creature who has submitted fully to playing a feminine role in the home (542). As a result of her suppressed emotional state, she is regarded as having a fragile physical frame.
As the narrative unfolds, Mrs. Mallard appears to be what society determines as a happy and contented spouse married to a middle class husband. Mr. Mallard ensures that he dutifully plays the patriarchal society’s assigned role. While he commits to serving as breadwinner for his spouse and family, the wife is tasked with caring for the home as a dignified Victorian home maker should. At first glance, it is a perfect life for both marriage partners.
Feminists with Chopin as one of the movement’s pioneering writers offer a perspective that resoundingly portrays the woman in the story as without an identity of self (Levine 543). For instance, she is simply termed as Mrs. Mallard. It seems that she gains existence and status in society from being married to a man, in this case, Mr. Mallard. It is not possible to identify her as a person with is a unique perception of self. Her sister Josephine further cements this attribute by following up to her room as if Mrs. Mallard is in dire need of care. She is relegated to the position of being utterly dependent on people around her. Josephine calls to her, “open the door-you will make yourself ill” indicative of her delicate persona and physical health (Levine 544). Though she voices concern about the open window which might bring in cold air and harm her health, Josephine is ultimately concerned with her emotional state. Though Chopin expresses the protagonist as “young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength”, it is a robustness that is suppressed (Levine 543). She believes that Mrs. Mallard is not independent and like a child who cannot make any fruitful decision for herself.
Audiences do not come to gain knowledge of Mrs. Mallard’s real name up until her sister reports of the purported death of the husband. Josephine is in the company of Mr. Mallard’s friend, Richard, and both are at pains on how to tell the ill news to Mrs. Mallard in the most subtle way possible (542). However, their fear is unfounded as by simply terming Mrs. Mallard as Louise, a part of her comes alive. She identifies that there is a part of her which has been vague for a long time; since she got married. It is Brently Mallard’s untimely demise that appears to have broken off the shackles binding her to some form of prison since the narrative began (Levine 542). Given that he is now deceased, her sister is justified to classify Mrs. Mallard as a free human being, as one who only answers to herself and to the name Louise. She is no longer a man’s possession but a free human being. While in her room with the window open, Mrs. Mallard reaches a point of enlightenment. She is suddenly attuned to every sound, scent, and symbolically, the newness of spring life. Her eyes drifted to the sky and her whole being was raised up in a moment of intelligent thought. It results in a moment of peace that calmed her every emotion and more so, warms up every part of her being. As Chopin points out, “There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air” (Levine 543).The real Louise was thus awakened to her identity as a person unique and in tune with the way nature intended for her to live.
Death of Spouse
For centuries, women have been considered weak stemming from their physical and emotional attributes. This is a notion still progressed today. The woman can only be comfortable enough to experience true love and a joyful life while espoused to a man. However, it is the same love that nurtures dependence and by extension, the annihilation of a woman’s unique identity of self. The manner with which Louise is approached by her sister implies that all women were relegated into considering each other as emotionally fragile and heavily inclined to collapse at the pressures of life especially, after the death of a spouse. Louise’ sibling ponders, “Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death” (Levine 542). Her sister must have believed that given Mrs. Mallards small body frame, frail heart, and emotional suppleness, news of his death would be devastating. This implies that her greatest loss would be the inadvertent forfeiture of masculine support to lean on, leaving her in a very vulnerable state bordering total collapse. Death of a spouse was therefore considered the worst outcome a woman could experience in life. However, Chopin denounces such claims as the occurrence offered Louise a newness of life, one she had previously lost upon committing to marriage. To her, the death of a spouse is ultimately a good thing an opportunity to gain the life that she was previously coerced to let go by a predominantly patriarchal society. Indeed, she grieves her husband but Louise is also a realist. She understand that a life after his death will mean something new, rare, but special, her own life absolutely.
19th Century life for a wife was one lived under total submission to a husband. She was not free to do her own things apart from tasks or role considered as feminine. Even in such situations, it was only right to do such things if it was right by the husband. This implies that they lived for the man and with the patriarchal social setting according no consideration to what the woman wanted. Mrs. Mallard had ceased living as Louise, her own unique personal identity upon marrying Mr. Mallard. The patriarchal society demanded that the man dominates over the affairs of his wife in all spheres of human society. It is upon his death that she experiences a moment of life transforming revelation. Death has opened up new doors previously locked and under watchful guard of the male dominated culture. Life has accorded another opportunity to, “live for herself” (Levine 543). She is now not confined to marriage under the constructs of patriarchal society but rather she is once more, “Free! Body and soul free!” to rule her life (Levine 543). Death of her spouse has released her from the bond of marriage granting her the prospect of developing a distinctive identity of self.
An emotionally deprived individual does not boast the total wellness necessary for healthy living. Ultimately, this leads one to exude a dull approach to life and more so, disregarding the condition of their physical being. In light of such truth, Mrs. Mallard’s frail heart is a symbolic gesture that translates to an unhealthy state of emotional well-being (542). Emotions such as love, kindness, compassion, envy, and even jealousy are known to stem from the innermost parts of the human heart. As Mrs. Mallard, Louise’s heart was deprived of bearing all such emotions whether negative or good. Her heart was therefore in a sorry state sinces it was not functioning in the way it is meant to be. Mrs. Mallard’s position in marriage had resulted in a case where the heart no longer beats for Louise but for Mr. Mallard. As a result, it was overburdened with playing a role that was it was not intended to play. This was the true cost of being a virtuous wife in accordance to Victorian Era maxims. Chopin paints a clear picture of the conflict within Mrs. Mallard’s heart as the Louise within makes attempts to assert her own free will to do with herself as she pleases (Levine 543). She provides that as she was seated in the armchair looking outside through the open window, “she was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will” (Levine 543). It was an overwhelming feeling that bubbled within the depths of a once frail heart giving it life once more, life to be free to its own accord. The uncontrollable feeling was as natural as daylight and what she thought was fear was in an instant transformed into joy.
Confinement in Marriage
In modern times, marriage to another is primarily founded on love. It appears that Mrs. Mallard genuinely loved her husband and was inherently motivated to be his close companion. She therefore appears not to hate the union of marriage but the structures and boundaries defined by the patriarchal within which she is supposed to exist. For instance, Louise is well aware of the fact that at the funeral, the inability to love him in reality as when he was alive will overwhelm her resulting in a moment of profound bitterness (Levine 543). However, she is privy to the fact that there is bound to exist “a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely” (Levine 543). It appears that were it not for the indifferent manner that the institution of marriage treats the woman, Louise would not have been so optimistic about the future. But alas! It snatched away that which nature so freely gave to the woman, her freedom, and a distinctive identity. Louise gained a reason for living joyfully in a manner that she could not have fathomed were it not for Mr. Mallard’s death. The notion of freely living her life to the best of her abilities is the most exciting thing Louise could think about concerning the future.
As Kate Chopin provides, confinement in marriage is like a shadow cast over a soul where the husband determines when to allow light to reach it. Through the application of literary symbols, the author illustrates the life of confinement that Mrs. Mallard willfully lived and that which Louise so strongly sought to become free from. After the news reaches Mrs. Mallard, she steals away in search of solitary solace in her room. It is at this point she perceives the view from her window in a way that she had not comprehended while Mr. Mallard was living (Levine 543). The open window symbolically suggests that it was nonexistent in Mrs. Mallard’s life and it is only Louise who could experience its splendor. Confinement in marriage thus stifled Louise of her identity and freedom to which her room or the matrimonial room became one closed to the free and natural world. There was no opportunity to savor life as it really is within the confines of marriage.
There is a peculiar turn of events as the story comes to a close. Mr. Mallard get back home to a shocking reception; his wife collapses with a shrieking sound upon seeing him. It appears that in the joyful moments after learning of his purported death and savoring the sense of freedoms albeit for a short intense moment, it would rather be fitting to die rather than live a lie. She had reached a point of no return, by viewing how bright her life would be without a confinement to marriage and an own identity, it would be impossible to live a life as Mrs. Mallard again. Through this short but powerfully intriguing story, one comes to terms with the reality of marriage from a feminist perspective. One where a patriarchal society is bent on ensuring the development of man while collectively curtailing that of the woman of which Kate Chopin believes in writing about. In is imperative that one comes to terms with the conditions and circumstances facing women in the 19th Century before appreciating the gist of Kate Chopin’s work, “Story of an Hour”. It is critical to appreciate that modern day developments have essentially rode on the backs of gains made during that past epoch. For instance, industrialization advocated for wider access to education for the masses resulting in a society that hungered for knowledge, accurately discerned it, at attempted every possible means to utilize it an individual and by extension, collective level. Women’s Suffrage also availed for an avenue through which female voices could be amplified allowing for the gender to seek greater participation in society. The 19th Century and 20th Century literary movements like Realism and Modernism allowed for persons who wished for a different society to make it come alive through books and the minds of their readers.
Levine, Robert S. The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Ninth Edition) (Vol. 2), 9th Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, 20161219. [Bookshelf Online].
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