What message does the surprise ending convey about Louise Mallard and other women like her in "Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin?
Kate Chopin, author of "Story of an Hour," lost her husband in 1882 and was left to care for her six children on her own. One way she did this was to write, and her writing was not always "comfortable" for audiences of the 1800s as she questioned the submissive role of women (along with their passionate nature).
Something that was coming to light within society at this time was:
...the "Woman Question," [and what] roles were acceptable for women to assume in society.
In "Story of an Hour," the message that Chopin is sharing with the audience defies the stereotypical role a woman had to play then—being "attached" to a man who believed it was his right by society and God to control his woman. We understand through Louise that Brently (her "dead" husband) was never unkind to her on purpose, but the fact that he never allowed her to know or be herself is a terrible sin in her eyes. It is only when she believes that he is dead that her sense of self rises to the surface, showing Louise a side of life that she had never imagined.
And although Louise feels wicked in celebrating her "freedom" at the cost of Brently's life, she knows that now her life will now have meaning—something she never knew she was missing. The concept of personal freedom is so great that she is almost drunk with it. When her sister-in-law Josephine convinces Louise to come out of her locked room, Louise carries herself like a queen down the stairs. She has been reborn. Whereas she had worried that the days of her life would drag on forever, now she prays that there will be an endless number of days ahead of her that she might enjoy the rebirth she has experienced.
As they descend the stairs, a key sounds in the lock; Brently Mallard appears with no knowledge of the railway disaster that ostensibly took his life. However, in that instant, Louise realizes that she will not have the freedom she has so briefly tasted. The audience knows that Louise dies because the idea of returning to her former life is intolerable to her.
The doctors who arrive and announce it was heart trouble, that "she had died of heart disease—of the joy that kills," support the male-dominated idea that a woman could only exist with a man to provide for her; she was, after all, the weaker sex, and intellect was not something of which most men believed their wives capable.
The doctors who arrive after Louise collapses are symbolic of a society that could never free its women to exist on their own merits, married or not. A woman simply did not have it within her to exercise her own will or develop original thoughts or opinions: her happiness—her very existence—came from the meaningful role of wife and mother.
Louise and most of the women of her time were oppressed— "shackled" by the norms of the society in which Kate Chopin lived.