Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Because Louise Mallard suffers from a heart condition, her sister Josephine gently and carefully gives her the news of her husband’s death. Mr. Richards, a close friend of her husband, Brentley Mallard, and the first to learn of the tragic railroad accident that claimed Mallard’s life, has accompanied Josephine to help soften what they know will be a cruel blow.
Louise falls, sobbing, into her sister’s arms, then retreats upstairs to her room. Josephine, who begs Louise to let her in, would be shocked if she knew what thoughts were racing through her sister’s mind. Louise has loved her husband, who has in turn loved her and treated her kindly, but she is not crushed by his death, nor do her reflections make her sick.
Indeed, although she initially hesitates to admit to herself that she is not distressed, she begins to repeat one word: “free.” Her life is her own again; no longer will she have to yield to her husband’s wishes. Only yesterday she had regarded life as tedious and feared longevity. Now she yearns for long life.
Finally, she yields to her sister’s repeated pleas to unlock her bedroom door. Louise embraces her sister, and together they go downstairs to rejoin Richards. As they reach the bottom of the stairs, Brentley comes through the door, unaware of the accident that supposedly has claimed his life. Richards tries to move between him and his wife to shield her from the shock, but he is too late; she has already seen Brentley. She screams and falls down dead. The doctors who examine her afterward say that her weak heart could not bear the sudden joy.
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In “The Story of an Hour,” the fact that Mrs. Mallard is “afflicted with a heart trouble” becomes an ironic reality, for Mrs. Mallard’s “heart trouble” in the beginning of the story is that she feels emotionally thwarted in her marriage. When her husband is believed to have been killed in a train accident, her friends notify her cautiously, assuming she will be devastated. The news, however, brings her tears of release rather than of grief. She is enlivened by her new situation and symbolically insists that all the doors of the house be opened. When Brently Mallard suddenly returns home, however, Mrs. Mallard’s death is both literal and symbolic—in one hour, her freedom has been won and lost. For Chopin, Mrs. Mallard represents the numerous women who silently bear the feelings of being trapped in unhappy marriages but whose escapes could be ephemeral at best.