Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" is a masterpiece of the literary technique of irony; even the title is ironic in that so much that is unexpected happens in the life of Louise Mallard in just sixty minutes. Here are other examples of the three types of irony:
- Situational Irony
Since irony always involves an incongruity, this type of irony is one in which the expectation and the fulfillment are not what is expected. Perhaps, the most salient example of situational irony is in the turn of events in the hour that suggest that Bently Mallard is dead and Mrs. Louise Mallard has fully come alive. For, incongruously the narrative abruptly changes and it is Bently Mallard who yet lives while Mrs. Mallard, who with "triumph in her eyes" as she descends the stairs from her room in which she has "breathed a quick prayer that life might be long"; perceives her husband as he comes through the door, and with a "piercing cry" abruptly dies.
- Verbal irony
This type of irony involves an incongruity of words. That is, verbal irony is a statement by the writer which means the opposite of what it appears to mean. While Chopin's story has several instances of verbal irony, one example is Chopin's use of "a heart trouble" at the beginning of the narrative. It seems that the phrase denotes a physical ailment, but Chopin does not intend for "heart" to denote the organ of the body. Instead, the reader later discerns, "heart" connotes the figurative heart; that is, the soul. Mrs. Mallard suffers from repression, a trouble of the soul.
- Dramatic irony
Dramatic irony involves differing perceptions by the reader than by a character in the story. For instance, when Mrs. Mallard will not allow Josephine to help her upstairs, it seems that she is so grief-stricken that she wishes to be alone. However, unbeknownst to the character Josephine, the reader learns that Louise Mallard wishes to be alone so that she can fully comprehend her freedom from repression as a Victorian wife:
She sat with her head thrown back upon the cushion of the chair, quite motionless....
There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully....She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching...
When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped...."free, free, free!"
Instead of grieving as Josephine believes, Louise Mallard rejoices in her new freedom. Since only the reader is privy to this knowlege and the character Josephine and, later, her husband Bently do not know her feelings, dramatic irony exists.
Indeed, it is this masterful use of irony in her very short story that gives Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" such powerful implications.
Irony hinges on a reversal of expectations. Situational irony occurs when what happens is the opposite of what one might naturally expect. In "The Story of an Hour," Louise Mallard's two different reactions regarding her husband are ironic. In almost all cases, a wife would react with grief and deep sorrow at the news that her husband died in a train accident. However, in Louise's case, she goes into her bedroom and, once alone, experiences "joy" and welcomes her new freedom. At the end of the story, a reversal of expectation occurs as well. Rather than being thrilled and relieved to learn her husband is still alive, Louise is so shocked that she dies of a heart attack. This, too, is ironic.
Verbal irony occurs when the words that are spoken or written bear the opposite meaning of their literal denotation. Often the irony of the words is not revealed immediately, but upon finishing the story, the reader realizes that words that seemed to mean one thing actually turn out to mean the opposite. This applies to Louise's assertion to Josephine that "I am not making myself ill." Within a few paragraphs, Louise has died "of the joy that kills." When she said she was not making herself ill, she was reveling in the joy of her anticipated freedom as a widow. The sudden shock of not being able to experience that joy caused her heart attack, so in a sense, Louise was making herself ill—mortally ill. The reader understands the irony of Louise's claim when the story ends.
Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows something that a character does not. At the end of the story, when the doctors come and report the cause of death as "the joy that kills," the reader knows that the doctors assumed something about Louise's attitude that was not true. The final proclamation by the doctors is dramatic irony.
Kate Chopin fills her little story with a great deal of irony, including situational, verbal, and dramatic irony.