“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin was published in 1894 as “The Dream of an Hour” in Vogue magazine. The story is incredibly short and takes places only in the Mallard home over the course of, presumably, an hour. Louise Mallard, who has a heart condition, learns about the untimely death of her husband, Brently. She cries, of course, but then realizes that she will actually be much happier on her own. Armed with this new realization, she descends the stairs, only to see Brently himself walk in the door, just fine, and very much alive. Realizing that he was reported dead on accident, Louise promptly dies, the doctors concluding that happiness was her undoing. Except they were wrong.

Reading about the story online, I was surprised and delighted to find out that Chopin was a fan of Guy de Maupassant. I pair “The Story of an Hour” with Maupassant’s “The Jewelry,” and have found that they go together quite well. They both show the way in which ‘good’ marriages can still be bad; Chopin’s from the wife’s perspective, Maupassant from the husband’s. I know the gentlemen in my classroom appreciated being included; I will write up Maupassant’s story at my earliest convenience (hopefully soon). I also teach this story directly after Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which has worked out well.

A lot of the depth of the story is driven by the way that the elements of literature are used. For the length of the story, the amount of characterization present is a testament to Chopin’s skill as a writer.

Characters

Louise Mallard: Louise is characterized as “young” and is “afflicted with heart trouble,” which will be of no small importance in the story. Upon hearing of Brently’s death she cries uncontrollably, in a “storm of grief,” and retires to her room. As she contemplates life alone, she slowly comes to the realization that she is much happier now that she will not have a husband. The specific reason she gives is that, without Brently around, there will be “no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence” that characterizes marriage. The issue, then, is not with Brently as a person, but with marriage. Some students get bogged down in this subtlety because they assume, incorrectly, that Louise must ‘hate’ Brently to be happy he’s gone. However, she’s not happy that he’s gone, she’s relieved, though it’s complicated, as she admits that she will cry again over his death. Her reasons for relief at the idea of being alone are never made completely clear, nor should they have to be, but are given a darker dimension when it is explained that “She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.” Louise, before the story has started, is unhappy at the thought of living a long life. That should be reason enough to sympathize with her feelings about her newfound “freedom.”

Brently Mallard: Brently’s characterization shows that Chopin is not afraid to complicate this story. It would have been easy to write the character of the husband as cruel or deserving of hatred, but, instead, Chopin makes it quite clear that there is nothing wrong with him. He is described as having “kind, tender hands,” and a “face that had never looked save with love upon [Louise],” letting the reader know that Brently is no monster. Since he is ostensibly an ‘average’ husband, the issues with marriage that Louise experiences can be extrapolated to marriage as a whole.

Josephine: Josephine is Louise’s sister, and she is the one who delivers the news of Brently’s death to Louise. Josephine has a largely practical function within the text, as it would have been inappropriate during this time period for Richards to be alone with Louise (or any married woman). Additionally, Josephine moves Louise around the house, ultimately bringing her to the front door just in time to see Brently arrive home. She also establishes that Louise is acting ‘strangely’ during the events of the story, illustrated by her pleading with Louise through keyholes, which, again, Richards simply could not do.

Richards: Similar to Josephine, Richards as a character is, in part, a plot device. He is the one who hears the news of Brently’s death first, and he is the one who steps in front of Brently so that Louise won’t see him and be startled to death (which doesn’t work, obviously). In addition, Richards serves to further Brently’s characterization because Brently, being absent from the entire story until the very end, has no direct characterization. Instead, as his friend, Richards helps develop Brently’s character by showing what type of company he keeps. Some students will insist that Louise and Richards were having an affair, but that’s really absurd, and there’s zero text evidence for it (students always think characters are having affairs, though).

Symbols, Themes, and Figurative Language

Blue Sky: The sky is mentioned in the section where Louise is staring out of the window, contemplating her new life. The sky is mentioned as “blue” twice in a row, worthy of note considering that the story is so short. The sky – vast and bright – represents Louise’s future now that she is alone; however, since it is viewed only through a window, this freedom will end up happening only in her mind.

Critique of Marriage: One of the major themes of the story is a critique of marriage itself. It’s not Brently specifically who doesn’t work for Louise, it’s marriage, and presumably she would have felt the same regardless of who she was married to. Having a character who realizes that they want to be single is not a common theme in a story. That Louise presumably plans to opt out of marriage/sexuality exchange altogether, which is something that aesexual or aromantic students may identify with, giving them a rare chance to see themselves in a text.

The Doctors and Dramatic Irony: The doctors are ‘characters’ in the sense that they are people, but they really symbolize society. They appear only in the last line of the story: “When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease – of the joy that kills.” The doctors present what society would claim, that Louise died of happiness coupled with heart disease. Because the reader knows something that they do not (namely that Louise is not happy that Brently is alive), it is dramatic irony.

Door: Just as windows will be shown to represent freedom of the mind, the doors in the story represent the freedom to move from place to place, or bodily freedom, if you prefer. Louise locks herself in her room, asserting her independence (likely, newfound) in order to be alone with her thoughts. However, as the twist ending unfolds, it is Brently who walks through the door, symbolically ‘trapping’ Louise inside the house.

Goddess of Victory: After being coaxed out of her room by Josephine, Louise descends the stairs “unwittingly like a goddess of Victory,” walking down toward Richards. This gives the image of royalty making an entrance, with Richards literally looking up to her. That it is “unwitting” indicates that Louise is only starting to understand the significance of the events of the day. However, she is still Victory, capitalized, which is an allusion to Nike (winged victory) and Athena (her mother or counterpart). This is significant because Athena, often seen as either another version of Victory or as her mother, was a ‘virgin goddess’. Virgin, at the time, had nothing to do with sex, and instead meant someone not controlled by a man, in other words, an independent woman. As Louise has just found herself to be independent, this is a fitting allusion, the significant of which should not be overlooked.

Heart Trouble: There is a double meaning to Louise’s “heart trouble,” in the text. On a literal level Louise, of course, has actual heart trouble, which is why the shock and disappointment at the end of the story is enough to kill her. On another level, the heart is generally a symbol of love and romance, which is a source of figurative ‘trouble’ for Louise. Brently is characterized as loving by Louise: “she had loved him–sometimes. Often she had not.” Love is then described as an “unsolved mystery” for Louise.

Singing: When Louise sits in the armchair and stares out of the window “The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly.” Singing in many text of this time period represent a means of self-expression for women, and the re-introduction of song into Louise’s life gives the moment a hopeful tone, even though her feelings have not yet been revealed to the reader.

Sparrows: Directly after the quote about singing (above), it is noted that “countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.” Like the window (below), the birds are a symbol of Louise’s newfound freedom. However, they are only glimpsed at through the window.

Spring and Summer: Seasons are stock symbols that are used throughout texts, with Spring representing new beginnings, and Summer representing the prime of life and thriving. It is Spring during the story, and Louise thinks of “Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own.” It is important that Louise only pictures these two seasons since they are the ones that represent the prime of life, renewal, and vitality. This reinforces that idea that her freedom is positive and life-affirming.

Window: The window is probably the most significant symbol in the story, and many of the symbols above tie into it. The window, and windows in general, symbolize freedom of mind, or the freedom of thought that a character has. When Louise gazes out of the window, she is able to think and dream about life, and have a renewal of hope and optimism in the process. The window also symbolizes that she will be free in thought only, and foreshadows the twist ending, where Brently shows up and closes the door (both figuratively and literally) on her hope.

Conclusion

I am continually impressed with the amount of symbolism the can be packed into an incredibly short story. There is also a tremendous amount of simile and metaphor in the story that is worth going over if you teach this to a class and want to make it a full lesson. They aren’t my favorites, so I left them out of my personal analysis, but they’re worth noting. I love teaching Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” because it’s truly unusual, presenting an alternative idea to the cultural paradigm of marriage = good. The story complicates many of the things that are taken for granted about love and marriage, which is a new perspective to many of its readers.

Works Consulted

Kate Chopin on Wikipedia
Nike – Greek Goddess of Victory on Theoi.com

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