To what historical issue is "The Story of an Hour" responding?
At one level, Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" seems to be one of the first examples of feminist literature, as it is an attempt to expose the plight of married women at the end of the 19thC., who were often treated as chattel (or, belongings) rather than equal partners. At this time, for example, women in the US still did not have the vote; with minor exceptions, their employment opportunities were limited to low-paying needle-work and mill work, jobs that paid them about 12.5 cents per day--much less than men made. Women were, especially in the middle classes, expected to stay at home, produce and raise children, and provide moral and religious leadership for the family.
The story begins with the presumed death of Brently Mallard and the conventional expressions of Louise Mallard's grief:
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.
Louise Mallard's response to the news of her husband's death is just what one would expect--she cries violently at the shocking news (which turns out to be wrong) of her husband's death, a response that seems completely understandable and, more important, expected.
While she is alone, however, Mrs. Mallard begins to see that her husband's death has had an unanticipated, but ultimately desirable, consequence:
She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will.
"This thing," of course, is the realization that her husband's death has freed her from a marriage to which she is not totally committed. At this point, we are prepared to discover that her marriage is particularly bad and perhaps that her husband is abusive or unkind. Instead, we read of Brently Mallard's "tender hands" and "the face that had never looked save with love upon her." Clearly, Louise Mallard's incredible epiphany as she contemplates a future without her husband, which has opened her eyes to new vistas of personal freedom, is not the consequence of a terrible marriage. What, then, has engendered such a sense of freedom?
Chopin's story is not about a bad or abusive marriage, in particular. Rather, its real subject is the institution of marriage. Mrs. Mallard, whose husband seems to have loved her dearly, loves her husband "sometimes." but not always, an indication that her marriage was, like many 19thC. marriages, not a love match. For her, this marriage of convenience represents repression not just for her but, more important, for her husband, as well:
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 no less a crime. . . .
Louise Mallard's incredible sense of freedom has nothing to do with a marriage, or even her marriage, but everything to do with freedom from the imposition of someone else's will upon her. Marriage--her marriage, anyone's marriage--creates the framework for one person to impose his or her will upon another, but it is the loss of one's freedom of will, not the fact of a marriage itself, that has repressed Louise Mallard. One could say that the Mallard's marriage, which is a good marriage (in conventional terms) cannot, in Louise Mallard's view, be a "good" marriage because there can be no truly good marriages.
In one sense, then, it is correct to say that "The Story of an Hour" discusses the repression of women in marriage. The historical reality is that women often suffered in their marriages in the 19thC. because their rights as individuals were limited by repressive laws. But in another sense, perhaps slightly deeper, one can argue that Chopin's real concern is the loss of freedom for both men and women within the framework of marriage--the imposition of private wills "upon a fellow creature." The phrase "fellow creature" implies equality, and it is reasonable to say that Chopin's story is about men and women as equal victims of a repressive institution.
Kate Chopin's short story, "The Story of an Hour," responds to the feme [femme] covert laws from the Victorian Age. This legal term literally means "concealed woman." Coverture gave a husband rights over the property of his wife that she possessed before they were married. Moreover, the wife was also deprived of her power to make contracts with other parties or to bring lawsuits as an independent person.
At the beginning of Chopin's narrative, Mrs. Mallard suffers from "a heart trouble," which is repression caused by this feme covert law that has is part of a patriarchal society in which the husband exerts dominance over his wife. When she is told that her husband Brently Mallard has been killed in a train wreck, it is apparent that she has led a repressed life:
She 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. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her.
This unusual behavior by Mrs. Mallard becomes clarified after she goes up to her room, sits in her chair, and looks out at the blue sky as "something [was] coming to her and she was waiting for it." She "abandons" herself to one word and says the word over and over: "Free, free, free!" Louise Mallard realizes now that her husband is dead she will regain her property and her individuality. This is why she stands "like a goddess of Victory" at the top of the stairs after she steps out from her bedroom.
And, then, when the report proves false and Bently Mallard enters from the front door, he is amazed at a "piercing cry," and Mrs. Mallard dies "of heart disease--of joy that kills." Hers was the joy of release from the feme covert laws; now, when her husband returns, the idea of losing her self again kills Louise Mallard.