Kate Chopin’s “The Story Of An Hour”: A Critical Perspective Essay
Kate Chopin, in her short story, The Story of an Hour, tackles complex issues involved in the interplay of female independence, love and marriage through her brief but effective characterization of the supposedly widowed Louise Mallard in the last hour of her life. Through her characterization of Louise, Chopin portrays a picture of a sympathetic woman with strength and insight; who is unable to translate her new- found freedom into an effective realization which ultimately leads her to an untimely death caused by her “monstrous joy”. Chopin eloquently translates the feelings and emotions of a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage through her use of subtle imagery and situations that effectively bring out the subconscious desire of a woman in a patriarchal society. That is to say, within Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour, the literary theories of feminism, psychoanalytical and mythological are present.
“This story is not about society or marriage but about Louise Mallard” (Berkove, 153). In the story we can relate to the powerful theme of self- assertion. Chopin painfully presents a situation of a woman who can assert her independence only after the death of her husband, that too, for a minimal period of an hour. Her situation can be analyzed by her reaction when she first heard the news, her chance to freedom is described by the writer as a “paralyzed inability” to accept the significance of her new-found independent identity. “She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance” (Chopin, 1894). Unable to fully realize her situation she silently withdraws into her room. Here, it is important to note that she can only meditate upon her freedom alone away from the constraints of the patriarchal society. In her “cave”, she reflects upon her situation, her status as a free woman; at first her freedom frightens her.
Gradually, she recognizes her freedom being “subtle and elusive”. In a feverish attempt she develops a monstrous joy that ultimately kills her highlighting her “paralyzed inability” to accept the significance of the situation. Though some critics do not relate Louise’s situation as a woman who was trapped in an unhappy marriage. They found no hard evidence whatsoever of patriarchal blindness or suppression. However, Louise’s statement, “Free! Body and soul free!” which she kept whispering, highlights the repressed state of her married life (Chopin, 1894). The words “free”, “body” and “soul”, gives us a perspective of a woman who felt dominated by her husband. Her body and soul were used as an object by the patriarchal society to satisfy the desires of her husband. The significance of the statement enhances when we see the protagonist “whispering” these words. The fact that she still is unable to fully comprehend her situation as an independent woman, further exemplifies her status as a woman whose body and soul were not regarded as hers. There is no mention of the cause of her repression. The reader can only regards the dominance of the patriarchal society as the cause of her situation, for her actions regard her married life as something that restricted her freedom, something that had no place for love and understanding. She was dependent on her husband to realize her identity as a married woman. It is this identity that Chopin attacks; as stated by Toth, “Chopin’s story is the most radical attack on the institution of marriage, on one person’s dominance over another” (Toth, 102).
The psychoanalytical theory defines the subconscious desires of Louise Mallard. The significance of this critical perspective lies in revealing the desires of Louise that could not have been expressed openly because of the social rules. “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” (Chopin, 1894). This quote clearly defines the subconscious state of Louise, who was not aware of what she secretly desired all this time of her married life. Her “id” is her desire for freedom, an independent identity, that she can attain only after the death of her husband. The “superego” is her sense of fear, a fear that is imposed by the societal rules which do not allow a woman to have a separate identity apart from her husband who defines her identity. Her realization of her freedom as “subtle and elusive” marks her “ego”, which realizes that the “id” must be satisfied, but that there are certain socially acceptable ways to achieve satisfaction. The second example of the psychoanalytical theory is the implication of the duration of the action as a “dream- like” situation, characterized as a “brief moment of illumination” (Chopin, 1894). The whole action has a dream- like quality, where a woman suddenly achieves her repressed emotions with the sudden death of her husband, feverishly realizes her new-found independence and untimely dies because of her “monstrous joy”. The whole action assumes the quality of a Freudian dream where a person’s subconscious desires are revealed and gets the treatment of reality with the appearance of “Superego” in the form of her husband who didn’t even knew about the accident hat gave his wife an elated joy that ultimately killed her.
The mythological perspective of the story lies in Chopin’s use of impressionist imagery. “In The Story of an Hour, a subtextual treasure, Chopin carefully ingles the sight, scent and hearing in her short chronicle to define the emotional and realistic state of Louise Mallard” (Kelley, 340). The emphasis on mythological perspective of Chopin’s story lies in the use of archetypal symbols and situation to exalt the status of the protagonist as a repressed woman. “She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life” (Chopin, 1894). The symbol of square represents a life that is defined by rules and regulations. Here, it is significant to note that the square is characterized as open which defines an opportunity to break the chains of patriarchal society. Louise sees the masculine symbol of tree through the open square, that is her opportunity is silently guided by the masculine authority which is now with the death of her husband covered with the new spring life that defines new hope. Another powerful feminine symbol used by Chopin is, “open windows”, “There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair” (Chopin, 1894). The window is a powerful feminine symbol that marks the hope of feminine liberty. It is significant that the window is an open window which highlights the opportunity to gain an identity. However, this opportunity can only be realized in a “comfortable, roomy armchair”, that marks the feminine space where Louise can explore the regions of her human soul. She realizes her archetypal quest of achieving an independent identity in this roomy armchair that marks the renewal of her life, her rebirth.
The Story of an Hour, exposes a fanciful dream of a woman who died, “just as she had been freed from a constructing marriage and realized self- assertion as the deepest element of her being” (Toth, Unveiling Kate Chopin, 150). Chopin brilliantly uses the metaphor of “monstrous joy” to project Louise’s emotional state. In the light of Aristotle’s statement, “whosoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wild beast or a god”, Louise’s solitude enlightened her subconscious desires which she feverishly translated into the monstrous joy that ultimately killed her. By presenting this situation Chopin, highlights the true status of feminine liberty which cannot be realized in solitude. She projects a delicate incisive irony- what would happen if an immature and shallow egotist were to face the earthly consequence of an impossible dream of her afflicted heart. Through her portrayal of Louise, Chopin translates the feelings and emotions of a woman in a subconscious manner, making it realistic through the archetypal imagery and the situation that not only gave her short chronicle a feminist and psychoanalytical perspective, but also exemplified the situation of the Victorian women, who subconsciously desired an independent identity.
Chopin, Kate. The Story Of an Hour. Vogue: New York. 1894 Berkove, Lawrence I. “Fatal Self- Assertion in Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story Of an Hour’.” American Literary Realism 32 (Winter 2000): 152- 58.
Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: Morrow. 1990 Kelley, Annetta M.F. “ The Sparkle of Diamonds: Kate Chopin’s Usage of Subtext in Stories and Novels”. Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Summer 1994): 331-344.
Toth, Emily. Unveiling Kate Chopin. Jackson: UP of Mississippi. 1991