As a modern-day woman living with all the benefits and freedoms accorded every citizen in the 21st century, it was very hard for me to imagine that the curtailment of women’s rights, more specifically, a woman’s right to personal happiness and development, once existed in the 19th century. Not all women of the era were accepting of the situation and those who had the power to have their point of view heard, women like Kate Chopin for instance, made sure that their cries for equality and freedom were heard. In fact, her short story “The Story of An Hour”, which was written on April 18, 1894, but not published by Vogue magazine until December 6, 1894, was a sneak peek into this curtailed world of married women. It tells the story of the married life of a typical 19th-century couple. Mrs. Louis Mallard and Mr. Brenty Mallard lead what seems to be the normal description of married life within that particular era. So, it comes as a surprise to the reader when Mrs. Mallard, upon learning of the untimely demise of her husband in a railroad construction accident, goes through a roller coaster of emotions that her poor body simply could not deal with. Her emotions ranged from actual grief, relief, a sense of freedom, disappointment, and eventually, heartbreak. All of which led to her own and really tragic death at the end of the short story.
By all existing criteria, “The Story Of An Hour” is a novel saddled with the emotional baggage of a woman existing in what she then considered to be a loveless marriage. Loveless in the sense that she lived not for herself and her sense of happiness and fulfillment, but rather the sense of dread of having to be in constant agreement with her husband. A situation that oftentimes left her distraught and unhappy because of her own personal opinion that could not be shared with her husband because women during that time simply did no such thing. It is that particular knowledge of the social standing of women during the era that makes the story quite dramatic and leaves even a modern-day woman pondering on the relevance and reality of married life.
Let me say right off the bat that Kate Chopin, who was perhaps one of the earliest advocates of women’s rights, wrote what could be considered as one of the most scandalous short stories of the era. This is because her view of marriage as a death sentence for women was not something that women could readily accept. Marriage during this era was something that women looked forward to since they were old enough to walk down the aisle as a flower girls. They basked in the thought that they too would one day don the white gown and have a man to take care of and a family of her own. Women then were raised in the mindset that men knew best and their decisions were never to be questioned. A wife was to agree with anything her husband said regardless of the idiocy of his statement or belief. A proper lady would not have any other ambitions in life save for making sure that a hot dinner was on the table when her husband came home and that the house was in order in order to be conducive to his rest period. Wanting to have her own space and pursue her interests was never part of the ideal of the era. It is apparent that during the lifetime of Ms. Chopin, it was quite a common practice for what was considered to be the dominant sex, to force his will upon and have his wife accept it without question.
Kate Chopin was a master of the use of symbolism in her stories. As in her description of Louis Mallard’s sense of freedom finally being opened to her in one of the later paragraphs, she is capable of using an act as simple as the opening of a window and the sight of what lies beyond it, to ably describes how a new world of freedoms had finally been opened up for Mrs. Mallard and how she enjoyed basking in the thought of the newfound freedom. Such scenes bring to the fore the idea that Ms. Chopin viewed marriage as a curtailment of a woman’s freedom and that the only way for her to break free of these chains is if her husband dies. Thus making the ending of the story even more bittersweet in the process.
The author’s use of personification is also quite interesting as she uses her words to describe a young and beautiful woman who has learned to expertly mask her real feelings, emotions, and thoughts. This sense of repression gave the readers a clear idea as to how Mrs. Mallard was trapped in a marriage that was slowly taking away her life essence.
As a reviewer, I also have to note that Ms. Chopin uses the gift of imagery in such a graceful manner that I found myself drawn further into her story. Through her use of creative words to describe the situation around her central character, Ms. Chopin effortlessly drew her readers into a more engaging experience as she portrayed the negative vibes that actually surrounded Mrs. Mallard’s environment. Her home could be compared to a toxic waste dump where nothing survived until the death of her husband. Then everything simply bloomed and the ground became a fertile area wherein the now widowed Mrs. Mallard could finally begin to flourish as an individual instead of a submissive wife.
“The Story Of An Hour” can also be considered as an early psychological look into the working mind of a married woman. Keep in mind that we are shown exactly how Mrs. Louis Mallard reacts upon hearing of her husband’s untimely demise. As the scene played out, Ms. Chopin expertly used double-meaning words and descriptions so as to mask the actual sentiment of the visibly grieving wife. Her tears of sadness and despair, as understood by those around her, were actually tears of joy. Indeed she was first overcome by grief at the thought of the tragic accident that took Mr. Mallard’s life. But, upon reflection on their married life, she came to understand how much things had changed for her now. A particular kind of freedom that she thought was lost to her forever had been returned by that one life-changing event. It was then that her tears became tears of joy. Joy at the thought of finally being able to live a life free of her husband’s tyranny and disrespect. A life where she would finally be allowed to discover the world around her and who she was if she were not simply described as Mrs. Louis Mallard all the time to those in society.
Having lived her life without ever having an identity of her own, Mrs. Mallard was first someone’s daughter before she became Mr. Mallard’s wife, she had perhaps for a long time toyed with the idea of how being free of a secondary personal description would have been like. This is why when she learned of her husband’s death, her gleeful expectation of finally discovering who she was overtook the events surrounding what should have been the lowest and saddest point of her adult life. For her “beloved” husband was now dead and she should have been at a loss as to how to continue living without him. Instead, she locked herself into a room and made plans for continuing life as a happy widow who now had the opportunity to live life according to her terms. To have that sense of freedom suddenly given to you and then, just as abruptly taken away, would indeed have been enough to kill any woman who had lived her life longing for freedom and a sense of self.
Delving into the way the story itself was written, one will perhaps wonder as to why there are so few characters within the story and why we know so little about each of them, even of the central character in the story. I can only surmise that this is because the characters were described and given actions within the story by Ms. Chopin, in such a manner and written understanding that the reader can easily identify or identify with any or perhaps all the characters within the pages of the short story.
As I sat there pondering the relevance of the points and situations presented within “The Story Of An Hour”, I came to realize how much the women of my generation take so much of our freedoms for granted. Every single freedom we enjoy now came at a cost for our predecessors who refused to accept that life for a woman, the complete essence of being a woman, was directly tied to the longevity of her husband’s life and the way that their married life was led. These days, no man can ever call a woman his “inferior” and get away with it. Indeed our struggle for equality and freedom is still somewhat curtailed these days although on a lesser and more negligible scale. We no longer have to dream of the day when our husbands die just so we can have a chance to live. In the view of Ms. Chopin, a view that was perhaps influenced by the existing conditions and treatment of women during the 19th century, marriage was a death sentence. During that time, women were not allowed to do many things and an unmarried woman would have had a very difficult time supporting herself. So that a woman had no other choice but to submit her free will in exchange for social and financial security to a man whom she may or may not love.