How is gender defined in Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"?
In order to understand the gender issues present in Chopin's "The Story of an Hour," it is important first to look at Chopin's life. Kate's husband died when she was thirty-one. Chopin had little money and six children to raise. When she was thirty-nine, she began writing—some poetry, but also short stories.
The stories center around the themes of class relations, relationships between men and women...
Kate lived in a male-dominated society where women were second-class citizens. Women were believed to be fragile creatures that needed a man in order to survive and be happy. Society saw women...
...as selfless wives and mothers.
"The Story of an Hour" was published in 1897. Many women were fighting for the right to vote and to hold jobs.
Chopin's depiction of female self-assertion was regarded as immoral.
In this story, Louise Mallard is the perfect wife—dutiful and controlled. This is evident by her reaction to the idea of individual freedom with the death of her husband. Ironically, the idea of being her own person is something she at first desperately fights.
There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully…
…She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will...When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips..."free, free, free!"
Dutifully, Louise resists this thing her very soul seems to unconsciously yearn for: freedom. Until this moment, she has never recognized the social restrictions placed upon her. Her conscious mind has never realized that there was any other kind of existence she might have hoped for; but once she knows, she looks back at her life as if with new sight. One's will imprisoned—regardless of what it is called—is enslavement. Her autonomy promises many things:
There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.
The promise of this new life engulfs Louise. Now she even understands that freedom is more important than love, "the unsolved mystery." Her joy is boundless:
"Free! Body and soul free!" she kept whispering.
Louise's "illumination" infers that subjugated before by the laws of society, she is now not only able to make her own choices, but she can think for herself and have her own opinions.
The value of this freedom is seen in Louise's response when she sees that Brently is alive. In an instant, her freedom is snatched away. She cannot face returning to her former life—she cannot know of freedom and not have it. She has a heart attack and dies.
The doctors (men) who are called, diagnose Louise's death as a deadly elation in seeing her beloved husband.
...she had died of heart disease--of the joy that kills.
This is deeply ironic—Chopin infers that this is what the men want to believe—that Louise's sense of loss was so great, that seeing Brently again was a joy her poor heart could not handle. Chopin, however, infers that Louise's death is due to her devastation of losing her freedom—for Brently...society...will never allow her the freedom she had for a fleeting moment.
The loss of Mrs. Mallard's new freedom from her marriage is unbearable. This is not to say (though many readers might say it) that her marriage was miserable. The text explicitly says “she had loved him—sometimes.” The previous paragraph in the story nicely calls attention to a certain aspect of love—a satisfying giving of the self—and yet also to a most unpleasant yielding to force:
There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending her in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.
This is doubly important as to her testimony of her ability to live independently and the loss of love which is a binding relationship between people. Kate Chopin draws an accurate representation of a person's inability " to live for himself or herself.: