"The Story of an Hour" is a story about imprisonment for a woman in a marriage, the joy that one hour of freedom provides her, and how devastating a loss of freedom can be. Chopin allows her readers to infer these themes with imagery, symbolism, and a surprising plot twist at the end.
As the story opens, the reader believes that the news of her husband's death might very well kill Mrs. Mallard, since she suffers from some sort of heart problem. Her sister, Josephine, and her husband's close friend, Richards, take care to break the news to her gently. But when she retreats to her room, we come to understand that marriage has been a form of imprisonment for Mrs. Mallard. Her room represents this prison. And through her interior thoughts, we know that her husband was a "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" (para. 12).
As Mrs. Mallard gazes out the window, it slowly becomes clear to her that she can be free of imprisonment now that her husband is dead. The window is a symbol of this new-found freedom. She sees "the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life" (para. 5), a symbol and image of the new life she looks forward to. She hears someone singing in the distance, much as her own heart must be singing. She hears sparrows "twittering in the eaves" (para. 5), another image and symbol of freedom, since what is more free than a bird? She notices "patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled one above the other...." (para 6). As she can see in the sky, the clouds in her life are now clearing away, with blue skies to come, a symbol of freedom and happiness.
But just as Mrs. Mallard is on the verge of what she believes will be a joyous and free life, she learns that her husband is not dead. It is her joy that is dead. And while she had managed to live her life in imprisonment, not having any other choice, once she has glimpsed her freedom, it is a painful loss she endures, so painful that it kills her.
Chopin's brief and deft sketch of one mere hour in a woman's life conveys her themes about marriage, freedom, and imprisonment quite well.