How does Chopin illustrate the role of women in nineteenth century western civilization?

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karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Story of an Hour" is a very short tale by Kate Chopin that follows Mrs. Louise Mallard through an hour when she learns first that her husband has died in a train accident and then, miraculously, that he is still alive since he did not actually board the train. The intense emotions Mrs. Mallard feels over the course of the story illustrate the constraints placed upon women by the institution of marriage in the late nineteenth century.

At the beginning of the story, the narrator tells us that Mrs. Mallard has "heart trouble," so her relatives must break the news of her husband's death to her very gently. Mrs. Mallard seems to be shocked by the news and retires to a room to be alone. As she sits in the room and thinks about her loss, she looks out the window and sees all the fresh, new life blooming outside. Surprisingly, Mrs. Mallards begins to think positively about her husband's death: she thinks of herself as "Free! Body and soul free!"

Being a widow means that she will not have to devote herself to her husband any more; she can be the master of her own life. This new realization has her walking "unwittingly like a goddess of Victory" as she leaves her room. Unfortunately, when Brentley Mallard walks through the door very much alive, Louise dies "of the joy that kills." The characters in the story interpret Mrs. Mallard's death as a reaction of overwhelming happiness at the return of her husband; however, the reader knows that she is shocked and presumably upset that she will not, in fact, enjoy the freedom she so recently envisioned for herself. 

This story tells us that marriage in the late nineteenth century, when the story is set, could feel oppressive to women. The idea that she is freed from the obligations of marriage and domestic life makes Louise Mallard feel overjoyed and invigorated.

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The Story of an Hour

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