“The Story of an Hour” by American author Kate Chopin is a mainstay of feminist literary study. Originally published in 1894, the story documents the complicated reaction of Louise Mallard upon learning of her husband’s death.
It is difficult to discuss “The Story of an Hour” without addressing the ironic ending. If you haven’t read the story yet, you might as well, as it’s only about 1,000 words. The Kate Chopin International Society is kind enough to provide a free, accurate version.
At the Beginning, News That Will Devastate Louise
At the beginning of the story, Richards and Josephine believe they must break the news of Brently Mallard’s death to Louise Mallard as gently as possible. Josephine informs her “in broken sentences; veiled hints that revealed in half concealing.” Their assumption, not an unreasonable one, is that this unthinkable news will be devastating to Louise and will threaten her weak heart.
A Growing Awareness of Freedom
Yet something even more unthinkable lurks in this story: Louise’s growing awareness of the freedom she will have without Brently.
At first, she doesn’t consciously allow herself to think about this freedom. The knowledge reaches her wordlessly and symbolically, via the “open window” through which she sees the “open square” in front of her house. The repetition of the word “open” emphasizes possibility and a lack of restrictions.
Patches of Blue Sky Amid the Clouds
The scene is full of energy and hope. The trees are “all aquiver with the new spring of life,” the “delicious breath of rain” is in the air, sparrows are twittering, and Louise can hear someone singing a song in the distance. She can see “patches of blue sky” amid the clouds.
She observes these patches of blue sky without registering what they might mean. Describing Louise’s gaze, Chopin writes, “It was not a glance of reflection, but rather indicated a suspension of intelligent thought.” If she had been thinking intelligently, social norms might have prevented her from such a heretical recognition. Instead, the world offers her “veiled hints” that she slowly pieces together without even realizing she is doing so.
A Force Is Too Powerful to Oppose
In fact, Louise resists the impending awareness, regarding it “fearfully.” As she begins to realize what it is, she strives “to beat it back with her will.” Yet its force is too powerful to oppose.
This story can be uncomfortable to read because, on the surface, Louise seems to be glad that her husband has died. But that isn’t quite accurate. She thinks of Brently’s “kind, tender hands” and “the face that had never looked save with love upon her,” and she recognizes that she has not finished weeping for him.
Her Desire for Self-Determination
But his death has made her see something she hasn’t seen before and might likely never have seen if he had lived: her desire for self-determination.
Once she allows herself to recognize her approaching freedom, she utters the word “free” over and over again, relishing it. Her fear and her uncomprehending stare are replaced by acceptance and excitement. She looks forward to “years to come that would belong to her absolutely.”
She Would Live for Herself
In one of the most important passages of the story, Chopin describes Louise’s vision of self-determination. It’s not so much about getting rid of her husband as it is about being entirely in charge of her own life, “body and soul.” Chopin writes:
“There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a will upon a fellow-creature.”
Note the phrase men and women. Louise never catalogs any specific offenses Brently has committed against her; rather, the implication seems to be that marriage can be stifling for both parties.
The Irony of Joy That Kills
When Brently Mallard enters the house alive and well in the final scene, his appearance is utterly ordinary. He is “a little travel-stained, composedly carrying his grip-sack and umbrella.” His mundane appearance contrasts greatly with Louise’s “feverish triumph” and her walking down the stairs like a “goddess of Victory.”
When the doctors determine that Louise “died of heart disease — of joy that kills,” the reader immediately recognizes the irony. It seems clear that her shock was not joy over her husband’s survival, but rather distress over losing her cherished, newfound freedom. Louise did briefly experience joy — the joy of imagining herself in control of her own life. And it was the removal of that intense joy that led to her death.