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The Story of an Hour

by Kate Chopin

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What are some literary devices in "The Story of An Hour" by Kate Chopin?

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Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" was published in 1884 and is one of the richest demonstrations of a compressed narrative that also exhibits a broad range of literary devices, with foreshadowing, symbolism, figurative language, metaphor, and irony being chief among them—in short, a tour de force of short story writing.

Foreshadowing, which helps prepare the reader for subsequent events, frames the story's opening lines:

Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death.

Chopin skillfully establishes that Mrs. Mallard has a serious medical condition and, by implication, that she lives among refined people who care for her. Mrs. Mallard's condition also implies that her heart condition dictates that she not only must be treated gently but also that she is gentle herself, and the reader does not suspect the possibility of the emotional fireworks that overwhelm Mrs. Mallard later on.

When Mrs. Mallard, who insists on being alone, goes to her room, she has a conventional episode of explosive grief, which we would expect after news of her husband's death. At this point, however, Chopin creates a scene, rich with positive imagery, that mirrors the sudden change going on in Mrs. Mallard's mind and soul. Nature, at this point, becomes an extended metaphor for Mrs. Mallard's transformation from a grieving widow to a single woman free of the repression of marriage. As she gazes out of the window, she sees:

the tops of trees that were aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air....The notes of a distant song...reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.

Each of these images mirrors the expansion of consciousness within Mrs. Mallard as she thinks about the implications of her husband's death, which she, at this point, does not quite understand fully. Again, this metaphor—with its intensely positive symbols of nature's freedom—becomes the controlling image for what is to follow: the blossoming of Mrs. Mallard's future.

As Mrs. Mallard continues to absorb the sensations she is experiencing, Chopin creates another extended metaphor—through personification:

There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully....it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, and the color that filled the air.

This "thing," which she tries to "beat...back with her will," is the explosive realization that she is free of repression—that is, of the repression of marriage—even though she notes that she loved her husband, who was always kind, "sometimes."

Irony, which we can loosely define as the difference between what seems to be and what really is, comes into play at the story's end when Mr. Mallard suddenly appears, and Mrs. Mallard drops dead, her death attributed to her heart:

When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of the joy that kills.

This is a wonderful example of dramatic irony. The characters observe a grieving widow suddenly shocked with joy too much for her weak heart, a conventional and expected interpretation of Mrs. Mallard's death. The reader, of course, understands that it is intense disappointment at the loss of her new-found (albeit temporary) freedom that is the deadly element.

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In "The Story" of an hour we find mainly

  • symbolism and allegory
  • imagery
  • situational and dramatic irony

The symbolism, or representation of one of thing with another, is evident in Louise's weak heart. She is too weak and sensitive to tolerate heavy situations; we know that this is a symbol for the lack of love in her life. When there is no love, the heart empties and, eventually dies. 

Allegory comes in the form of how motifs seem to permeate the story. Death, re-surfacing, re-starting, going back to life...those are topics ever-present. All the happiness that could exist in Louise's life would only be possible from Brantley's death. And, as he is alive, she now has to die. Either way, death is ever-present either through her condition or through his accident. 

Imagery is used a lot, especially when the reader understands the extent to which Louise REALLY wants to change her life and begins to imagine herself as a free woman:

he was drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window. Her fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her. Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed ...that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long....There was a feverish triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory.

Strong imagery, that appeals to the senses, is used to explain to the reader the strength of the character's emotions. Just the fact that we can sense and see what Louise hopes to see constitutes good use of imagery. 

The situational irony shows that the opposite of what is expected happens: Brentley is alive, enters the house fine and well, and his wife dies as a result.

The dramatic irony is how the death is diagnosed as "joy that kills". We know that it was not joy that killed Louise, but the shock that came over her after the disappointing fact that Brently was still alive and that her life was going to continue as usual. 

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