What is the irony in "The Story of an Hour"?
The irony in “The Story of an Hour” is that other characters mistakenly attribute Mrs. Mallard’s death to her shocked elation that her husband Brently is alive. Supposedly killed in a train accident, Brently suddenly appears at the end of the story. During the “hour” of the story, however, Mrs. Mallard secretly celebrates her new freedom from her marriage and husband. Her death, therefore, is from shock not of joy but of horror.
In "The Story of an Hour," Kate Chopin invokes both situational and dramatic irony. In fact, the entire plot can be understood as being grounded in situational irony. After all, if one's wife or husband were to die in a terrible accident, one would expect the natural reaction to be one of grief. However, while Louise Mallard does initially react with profound grief, ultimately she takes from this moment a sense of personal liberation. She takes joy in the personal agency that widowhood gives her.
This situational irony is actually deepened, however, once you factor in her health condition (an element reflected in the story's very first sentence). The characters within this story are concerned that giving Mrs. Mallard news of her husband's death will be too much for her heart, and this concern is actually validated within the story itself, if not in the way they expect. The characters fear that her grief will prove too much for her, but it is actually in that intense outpouring of joy and exuberation that readers can see hints of oncoming disaster. Consider how Kate Chopin writes:
Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body. She did not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her. ("The Story of an Hour")
Consider how the specificities of this description, invoking the imagery of her racing heart and coursing blood, can be read within the context of the heart condition which Chopin establishes in the very beginning of the story. One can easily see danger signs in this kind of imagery, reading these words as hinting at a potential cardiovascular collapse. When seen from this context, then her turbulent emotions did prove dangerous to her health, only it was not grief that did the damage...
The story ends with Louise, shocked to discover her husband still alive, dying of a heart attack. At this point, Kate Chopin invokes dramatic irony, when the doctors suggest that she died "of the joy that kills." The characters within the story believe that she was overjoyed when her husband returned still alive, and those strong emotions proved too much for her heart. Only readers are aware of the far more complicated reality that the story presents.
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Dramatic irony in Kate Chopin’s short story “The Story of an Hour” is shown in the belief by other characters that Mrs. Mallard died from joy upon seeing her husband Brently alive after believing he perished in a train accident. Through an omniscient narrator, however, the reader knows that Mrs. Mallard was upset and horrified by his return. Unbeknownst to other characters, behind closed doors, Mrs. Mallard was not mourning the death of her husband but relishing her liberation from him.
At the beginning of the story, her sister Josephine and Brently’s friend Richards treat her with kid gloves; they go to great lengths to break the tragic news to her with painstaking gentleness. When Josephine tells her about the accident “in broken sentences,” Mrs. Mallard
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.
To her concerned sister and Richards, Mrs. Mallard seems “wild” with grief. Her “abandonment,” however, is a loss of control due not to anguish but to joy. Her “storm of grief” quickly passes and seems to be a reaction more of shock and confusion than of sadness and despair. Only when she leaves the other characters and secludes herself in another room does Mrs. Mallard reveal her true feelings.
Away from witnesses, she celebrates her emancipation from an oppressive marriage and overbearing husband. She softly chants “free, free, free!” On one side of the door, she whispers, "Free! Body and soul free!" On the other side of the door, Josephine mistakenly believes Mrs. Mallard is making herself ill when in fact she is “drinking in a very elixir of life.”
Therefore, doctors mistakenly attribute her collapse to her weak heart. They believe that the joy of seeing her supposedly beloved dead husband actually alive was too great a shock for her heart to handle, that she died “of the joy that kills.” Readers know, however, that the shock that causes Mrs. Mallard’s fatal heart attack is not from joy but from dismay at her realization that Brently is alive. Her imagined new life as a free and autonomous widow is dead.
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Irony is created when there is a discrepancy between what we expect to happen and what actually happens. So, one major irony of this story is created when Louise Mallard reacts with joy to news of her loving husband's death. At first, she bursts into tears "with sudden, wild abandonment" and a "storm of grief." It is, therefore, even more of a surprise when Louise goes alone to her room and says to herself, "free, free, free!" So, she is happy about the loss of this husband who, apparently, "never looked save with love upon her"?! The simple answer is yes. She is not rejoicing in his death necessarily but in her own newfound freedom, but she is rejoicing, and this unexpected response to such seemingly tragic news is ironic.
Louise's sister, Josephine, kneels outside her door, concerned for Louise's health, as she fears that her sister is overwhelmed by grief. We, of course, know this to be untrue: if Louise is overwhelmed by anything, it is her happiness that "There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself." Because we, the readers, know more than Josephine, a character, dramatic irony is created.
Again, watching Louise descend the steps with "a feverish triumph in her eyes" as she walks "like a goddess of Victory" adds to the earlier irony of her initial reaction, because we would not expect a woman whose loving husband has just been killed to feel triumphant or victorious. It is also ironic that Brently Mallard walks through his front door as though nothing has happened because, all along, we expect him to be dead (since his friend verified the news by a "second telegram" before coming to break it to Louise). We, and they, expect him to be dead, not unlocking his front door.
Finally, the cause of Louise's death as proclaimed by the doctors, that she died of "joy that kills," is another example of dramatic irony. We know that her joy didn't kill her; instead, it was likely her disappointment that all the freedom she thought would be hers was suddenly snatched away when she realized her husband was still alive.
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