At the beginning of "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin, Louise Mallard's sister and a family friend have bad news to deliver, and they are very cautious because Louise "is afflicted with a heart trouble." They have to tell her that her husband, Brently Mallard, has been killed in a train accident, and they are afraid Louise will not survive hearing the news.
Louise's reaction is, in public, fairly typical.
She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her.
It is what happens in her room upstairs which is quite astonishing and provides the clues we need to discover what kills her and why it is ironic.
Though she will miss some things about her husband, a man who was never intentionally cruel to her but who was a controlling figure in her life, she is now "Free! Body and soul free!" From now on
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. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.
Louise contemplates her life and feels like a queen who is drinking in the very "elixir of life." She is ecstatic at the thought that her days, her years will now be her own.
She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.
She weeps for loss, but even more she weeps with joy at the freedom she now has. That is why, when she finally goes downstairs, nearly drunk with the possibilities which lie ahead of her, and discovers her husband at the door, her heart bursts "with the joy that kills."
The irony, of course, is that her heart was perfectly capable of enduring the loss of her husband to whom she had been married for years but was unable to endure the loss of a freedom she had for just a few moments.