Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Louise Mallard is Kate Chopin’s strongest example of the self-assertive woman—so strong an example, in fact, that Richard Watson Gilder refused to publish the story in The Century because he regarded it as immoral. Vogue, which finally published it after the success of Chopin’s Bayou Folk (1894), had initially rejected it for the same reason.
Mrs. Mallard certainly is a woman ahead of her time, for by the standards of the 1890’s she should be happy. Her husband loves her and treats her well; she herself acknowledges that he “had never looked save with love upon her.” Nor does she dislike Brentley.
However loving Brentley is, though, nothing can compensate Louise for the freedom that she has lost by marrying. Her face “bespoke repression”; no matter how kind Brentley has been, he has still imposed his will on his wife. Hence, Brentley’s death is not tragic to her because it gives her own life back to her.
She therefore emerges from her room “like a goddess of Victory,” with “a feverish triumph in her eyes.” She has won back her freedom. Though Chopin does not specify how Louise will use that liberty, in “Lilacs,” the next story she wrote, Mme Farival takes lovers, and Edna Pontellier in The Awakening (1899) also seeks sexual gratification outside marriage. Perhaps Louise, too, who resembles these women in her self-reliance, will seek sensual fulfillment.
Edna Pontellier also searches for her true vocation, which she believes is something other and more than mere wife and mother. Chopin regarded contemporary society as degrading to women, who were allotted limited roles in a male-dominated world. Just as the death of her husband sets Louise’s body free, so, too, does it free her spirit to find happiness in any way that she wishes.
Her husband’s return shatters her hopes. She is again a mere wife, subservient. This sudden reversal, the destruction of her dreams, kills her. Still, she is spared the living death of a stifling relationship, and before she thought her husband was dead she had dreaded a long life. The story’s ending is therefore ironic but not tragic because Louise does escape marriage in the only way now open to her.