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The Story of an Hour

by Kate Chopin

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What does the phrase "Free! Body and soul free!" indicate in "The Story of an Hour"?

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The phrase "Free! Body and soul free!" indicates that Louise Mallard is not grieving her husband's presumed death. Rather, she feels that his death has liberated her and given her the chance to be truly autonomous outside the criminally oppressive institution of marriage. Rather than living according to her husband's whims, she is physically, mentally, and spiritually free to do as she pleases.

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Louise Mallard believes—wrongly, as it turns out—that her husband, Brently, has just died in a tragic accident. Her immediate response to the news isn't one we'd expect from a woman who acknowledges that her husband has never given her anything but love in their marriage.

On the contrary, once she's retreated to the confines of her bedroom, all she can do is repeat, “Free! Body and soul free!” like a mantra over and over again. That's because Louise, far from being crestfallen over the death of her husband, actually feels liberated by it.

Brently may have been a loving husband, but that still didn't mean that Louise had the freedom to live her own life. In common with most married women of the time, she was expected to live her life through her husband, putting his needs above hers every time.

This ensured a very restricted life for Louise. So one can understand just why she feels liberated at the perceived loss of her husband. All of a sudden, new horizons have opened up, and for the first time since she got married, she's going to live life on her own terms.

Of course, Louise's feeling of liberation turns out to be short-lived. Brently isn't really dead after all, and when he returns home, Louise, now realizing that she isn't really free after all, drops down dead from a heart attack.

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Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" follows Louise Mallard as she is alerted to the news of her husband's death. While it is expected for Louise to respond with grief, and this expectation is even commented on within the narrative of the story, Louise has a very different reaction to this news. She finds herself perceiving widowhood as liberating. This theme of liberation is reflected in the phrase you quote, focused as it is on the idea of freedom.

For Louise Mallard, marriage involves the denial of agency and lack of genuine personal autonomy. This is, as she sees it, the great injustice of marriage. She even refers to it as a "crime":

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. (Kate Chopin, "The Story of an Hour")

Note the universal quality of this viewpoint, which applies both to happy and unhappy marriages. This is a condemnation on the fundamental nature of marriage itself.

Therefore, for Louise Mallard, widowhood represents genuine liberation and the chance for real self-actualization. As a wife, she lived under these societal and existential constraints. With her husband's death, however, she is released from those expectations and limitations, and is now free to live her life solely for herself. As the story concludes, however, we find out that the news of her husband's death was mistaken. Louise, shocked by the unexpected arrival of her husband, dies of a heart attack at the story's end.

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In Kate Chopin's celebrated short story "The Story of an Hour," the protagonist, Louise Mallard, receives news that her husband, Brentley Mallard, has suddenly passed away in a tragic railroad accident. Upon receiving the difficult news, Louise is overcome with emotion and breaks down before retreating to her upstairs room alone. While Louise is sitting in her room, she begins to contemplate her future as a widow. She experiences a sense of relief, hope, and optimism. As Louise stares out the open window into the blue sky, she imagines the joys of living an independent life, free from her husband's control and influence.

Louise imagines the privilege of experiencing true independence for the first time and escaping her duties as an obedient wife. Free from Brentley's control and influence, Louise recognizes that she finally has the opportunity to live completely for herself without having to please her husband or bend to his will. While she contemplates her newly acquired independence, Louise begins to whisper,

Free! Body and soul free! (Chopin, 3).

Louise Mallard's comment reveals her optimistic outlook on life and intense feelings of freedom. Louise has escaped her husband's authoritative influence and the oppressive institution of marriage. Women must behave as subservient second-class citizens and are subjected to the will of their husbands. Louise recognizes that she is physically free to do as she pleases and spiritually free to embrace her independence and live for herself. Tragically, Louise Mallard never has the opportunity to thoroughly enjoy her independence. She dies of a heart attack when she discovers that her husband is alive.

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The phrase "Free! Body and soul free!" is what Louise utters to herself over and over again upon realizing that her husband's death is not affecting her in the way that she (and, it seems, her sister and others) had thought it would. Instead of feeling sullen and filled with grief, she is surprised to find a feeling of relief and even relaxation coursing through her as she comes to terms with the idea that she will now have a life she can live for herself. She realizes that she will no longer have to worry about or be limited by the constraints that her marriage put on her; she is free in both "body and soul" from living her life as it has been shaped by the presence of her husband, who, though he is a man who "had never looked save with love upon her," is also someone she has not always loved. In this way, she is also freed from the institution of marriage itself, something that author Kate Chopin is very critical of, not only in this short story, but also in her other works, including her novel The Awakening.

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