Could someone tell me how does Kate Chopin reveal character in "The Story of an Hour"?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When Kate Chopin wrote “The Story of an Hour” in 1894, the role of women in society was cruelly restrained, predicated upon false assumptions regarding relative attributes and notions of gender inferiority.  Many people lived with the firm conviction that the woman’s place was to be a supportive wife to a husband and mother to their children.  Professional aspirations were discouraged, and societal structures enforced these edicts.  It was the rare woman who was free to pursue her passions in life unhindered by those societal constraints.  It was in this context that Chopin produced her works of literature.

In her short – in fact, very short – story about a woman, Louise Mallard, initially morose over the sudden and tragic passing of her husband who just as suddenly revels in her new-found freedom from marital tyranny, Chopin exposes the dark underside of marriage: the female spouse may very well prefer to have remained single and independent. Such is the case with Louise. Upon learning of her husband Brently’s reported death, Louise retreats to her bedroom, alone, and dissolves into tears of shock and sadness.  Chopin describes the scene as follows:

“She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her.

"There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.”

As she sits in front of her open window, however, the blueness of the sky and singing of the birds have a revelatory effect upon her:

“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. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.  Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will—as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been. When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: ‘free, free, free!’”

Louise comes to grasp the implications of Brentley’s death: she is now free to live her life any way she sees fit: "’Free! Body and soul free!’ she kept whispering.” Brentley’s death has liberated her from her sense of repression. 

Chopin’s characterizations, however, expose Louise in a rather negative light.  Besides an apparently serious heart condition (“Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death.”), Louise emerges as an exceedingly narcissistic character, devoid of true feelings for a husband even she admits was kind and loving (“She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead.”), but she is possessed of thoughts of only herself and the independence she will savor now that her loving husband is dead.  One could suppose she had been “forced” into the marriage, perhaps by her and Brentley’s respective families, or that she had only thought she had loved Brentley only to later discover she didn’t.  That happens.  What we do know, however, is that her elation is so complete that her husband’s sudden appearance is such a shock that it is this news – not the news of Brentley’s death –that causes her frail heart to fail.

In contrast to Louise, Brentley’s friend Richards is depicted as an eminently decent individual who wisely takes the time to confirm the sad news and whose concern for Louise and her medical condition compels him to enlist the aid of Louise’s sister, Josephine, in breaking the news of Brentley’s apparent death to Louise. As Chopin describes his role in the story:

“Her husband's friend Richards . . .He had only taken the time to assure himself of its truth by a second telegram, and had hastened to forestall any less careful, less tender friend in bearing the sad message.”

Similarly, Josephine is portrayed as the loving, thoughtful sister, hastening to be at Louise’s side in this presumably dark hour.  It is Louise who is presented in a less than flattering light, historical, social and cultural contexts notwithstanding.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray, and dead.....

And yet she had loved him--sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter! What could love...count for in face of this possession of self-assertion....

Mrs. Mallard, who fell in love with Bently Mallard has lost some love for him because of her suppression under the feme covert laws  of her time in which a married woman's property belonged to her husband to whom she then became subjugated. So, now that she supposes herself free, Louise Mallard regains her property. Is this so dark a character to cherish her independence? Chopin seems to think not. For, to be free--"Body and soul free!" is what all thinking humans desire. To be free is empowering: "she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory" as she holds her sister's waist and begins the descent down the stairs from her bedroom. 

For only a brief interlude, Mrs. Mallard has known true freedom; she has tasted of the "delicious breath" of its rain and has delighted in the emotional experience of delight. It is not that she is selfish or loves not her husband, but that she loves freedom more.

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The Story of an Hour

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