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The Story of an Hour

by Kate Chopin
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In "The Story of an Hour," why do the doctors claim that Louise dies "of the joy that kills"?

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In Kate Chopin's celebrated short story "The Story of an Hour," the protagonist , Louise Mallard, suffers from a heart ailment and receives the devastating news that her husband, Brently, died in a railroad accident. Initially, Louise Mallard responds by weeping with sudden, "wild abandonment" into her...

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In Kate Chopin's celebrated short story "The Story of an Hour," the protagonist, Louise Mallard, suffers from a heart ailment and receives the devastating news that her husband, Brently, died in a railroad accident. Initially, Louise Mallard responds by weeping with sudden, "wild abandonment" into her sister's arms before she retreats to her upstairs room. After locking herself in her room, Louise Mallard stares through an open window and admires the pleasant springtime atmosphere as she begins to reflect upon her future. Louise suddenly recognizes that she will finally be able to experience complete independence for the rest of her life without suffering from Brently's oppressive authority.

Louise also realizes that she will not have to conform to society's strict expectations as an obedient, submissive wife, which fills her with overwhelming ecstasy and joy. Simply thinking about her future as an independent woman inspires Louise to repeat the phrase "free, free, free!" (Chopin, 2). As she stares out the window, Louise embraces the idea of finally living for herself with no obligation to please anyone else. While Louise is reflecting on the limitless possibilities and opportunities of her upcoming years, her sister Josephine begins knocking at the door. Josephine is under the impression that Louise is overcome with grief and worries that she will make herself ill.

When Louise finally leaves the room and begins walking down the stairs, Brently Mallard enters the house, which startles Louise, who ends up dying of a heart attack. Ironically, the doctors determine that she died of "the joy that kills." They are under the impression that Louise was overcome with joy when she learned that Brently was alive, which is why her heart suddenly stopped working. However, the reader recognizes that Louise experienced the absolute horror of discovering that her dream of independence was shattered the moment she saw Brently. Ironically, Brently's survival does not cause Louise joy and has the opposite effect when she recognizes that her future is ruined.

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Kate Chopin’s short story “The Story of an Hour” ends with Mrs. Mallard collapsing upon seeing her husband Brently alive after thinking he was killed in a train accident. She suffered a heart condition. Doctors believed that the elation and shock of discovering her husband alive were too great for her heart to bear—that she died “of the joy that kills.” Their claim, however, demonstrates dramatic irony; they, like other characters in the story, believe that Mrs. Mallard was overjoyed at seeing her husband, when the reader knows that she was overjoyed at the release of widowhood and that Brently’s return is a crushing end to her brief fantasy of freedom.

“The Story of an Hour” takes place during the late nineteenth century in the home of a woman of high social status. Mrs. Mallard lives in a two-story house near an open square; it has separate rooms for her to retreat to after her sister Josephine and Brently’s friend Richards gently tell her what they think is bad news. Brently evidently holds a white-collar job, perhaps in business or journalism, that requires him to travel with a suitcase or “grip-sack.” Therefore, a woman of Mrs. Mallard’s stature is expected to be content—living comfortably and safely ensconced in loving marriage.

Upon hearing that her husband may have died, Mrs. Mallard

did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms.

Initially and to others, Mrs. Mallard appears to be wild with grief. Ironically, however, her “wild abandonment” actually results from her exaltation over her new autonomy. She “wept” for joy. The desire for a place outside of traditional marriage is unacceptable to a woman of her time and place. In fact, Mrs. Mallard even fears these unfamiliar sensations of release and liberty; at first these feelings were “approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat [them] back with her will.” When she does allow herself to accept them, her eyes lose their “look of terror” and her heart beats quickly to pump blood through her body like an athlete with adrenaline and determination. Mrs. Mallard comes alive and softly chants “free, free, free!” She feels “monstrous joy” and is not “ill,” as her sister thinks, but drinks “in a very elixir of life.”

Instead of being a dismal, dead-end prison as viewed by the public, widowhood for Mrs. Mallard will be liberation from patriarchal rule:

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.

This passage implies that in private, behind closed doors, Mrs. Mallard has to live according to Brently’s wishes; her will has to bend to his will. According to social mores, her place as a wife is to “live for” her husband and serve his needs and wishes. Instead of staring into future years of what society views as pitiable loneliness, however, she joyfully imagines “all sorts of days that would be her own.” While unhappy and repressed in her traditional marriage, she “had thought with a shudder that life might be long;” now, however, she wishes for many years to savor her freedom and autonomy as a widow.

Mrs. Mallard concedes that she would feel sad seeing Brently's “kind, tender hands folded in death.” He obviously loves Mrs. Mallard; she knows that he gazed at her with only love with a “face that had never looked save with love upon her.” She admits that “she had loved him—sometimes. Often she had not.” Yet the doctors mistakenly attribute her fatal breakdown to her joy at seeing her supposedly beloved husband.

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I want to clarify a bit with this question and answer. The doctors don't initially say that Mrs. Mallard died of a joy that kills. The doctors state that Mrs. Mallard died of heart disease. The first sentence of the story indicates that Mrs. Mallard's heart condition is well known, and that is why news of her husband's death had to be given to Mrs. Mallard very gently. Presumably, Mrs. Mallard's heart condition makes it so that emotional shifts are hard on her heart. That might seem odd, but heart rates change for all kinds of reasons. For example, stress and stressful situations will cause hormones to be released that speed up the heart rate and increase blood pressure. A heart that is already weak will be additionally stressed in this situation.

The doctors follow up the heart disease cause of death with the ironic part about Mrs. Mallard being so overjoyed that Brently is alive that her heart simply couldn't take it, and she died. The doctors assume, like everybody else, that Mrs. Mallard is perfectly content in her marriage. They believe that Brently's death is incredibly difficult for Mrs. Mallard to wrap her mind around, and they assume that his surprised arrival fills her with immense joy. Her happiness was so great that it stressed the heart to the breaking point, and the doctors figured she died in a moment of extreme happiness.

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