Literary realism is a movement which began in France and eventually came to America as a response to the romantic era in which characters, settings, and plots were all rather idealized and "pretty" in some way. "The Story of an Hour" is a perfect of example of this literary style. The primary tenets of realism are fairly simple: concentrate more on characters than plot, write about everyday people (the common man), and include onlyrealistic (rather than the more contrived or artistic) elements of the story. I've included a good eNotes overview on this movement, below.
This story is very much in keeping with the principles of realism. First, the story is about a common, ordinary married woman. Typical of nearly all women of this time, Mrs. Mallard is simply an extension of her husband rather than an equal partner. She has loved her husband at times, and he has never been intentionally cruel to her; however, she has not had the freedom to choose since she's been married (and quite likely even before that). Her story is a common one.
Second, the story is clearly more about character than plot. It is a short short story; however, we still know very little about any of the ancillary characters. Mrs. Mallard we come to know through the inner workings of her mind when she discovers she is now a widow. Hersense of freedom after being in a kind of "velvet bondage" is real and believable, as is her literally heart-stopping dismay when she discovers she will once again be a virtual prisoner to her husband's wishes.
Third, the story is quite ordinary in its simplicity. There are no pretensions or grand settings. This is a typical working husband who comes home to a typical working wife. Nothing more.
The fact that this story has a surprise and ironic ending does not detract from the realistic elements throughout.
The definition of literary realism is:
Literary realism most often refers to the trend, beginning with certain works of nineteenth-century French literature and extending to late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century authors in various countries, towards depictions of contemporary life and society "as they were."
Also, it is defined "...as "the faithful representation of reality."
Literary realism, in other words, is simply writing that reflects the reality of the time in which it was written, without romantic colorings: a "what you see, is what you get" kind of writing.
In "The Story of an Hour," Kate Chopin, the author, did exactly this, and was not loved for doing so. A woman whose husband had died, leaving her with children to raise, Chopin knew from first-hand experience how difficult it was trying to survive in a male-dominated society, and her themes often reflected this. Many people, male and female, saw this idea as "heresy."
This is exactly what Louise Mallard is doing: trying to survive in a male-dominated society, and it was, in fact, just that: women rarely had jobs outside the home during this period unless they donated time to a charity of some kind. (Women who had to work were only able to get menial jobs—taking in laundry or working in sweat shops—where clerks (who typed and wrote letters) were men. So Louise Mallard's life was dull and lacking purpose, as dictated by society to the women of her station. This was, however, a time when women were beginning to ask important questions of society, especially as to where they fit in, and why their role was a subservient one; and it is also for this reason that these kinds of stories were so popular with women during the 1960s.
In this story, Louise Mallard has a working husband who seems to love her; she has every material thing she could want. However, it is not until she receives news of Brently Mallard's death that she starts to realize she has been given a great gift: freedom. She had not even known it was out there, had not understood what she had been living without all those years. "Her character represents feminine individuality..." in a time when women had no such thing.
In a brief hour, her life becomes newly defined and the idea of this is such that she can almost not contain her joy and sense of release. Where the day before, life had seemed like a long progression of days without end or purpose, she now sees a long progression of days which she prays will never end.
Society's male-dominated hand is seen everywhere. Louise is treated like a fragile doll; the author states this is because the members of the household are worried for her health. The news of the accident is broken to her gently by a family friend, Richards. Even her sister-in-law, Josephine (who represents the women of that era who lived lives without ever questioning their place within society) is alarmed by Louise's subsequent desire to lock herself in her room (to consider the change that lies before her), rather than look to another woman to support her. Josephine also represents that portion of society that believes a woman is inherently weak and can only handle so hardship without breaking into pieces.
When Brently returns home, unharmed at the end of the "hour," and Louise dies from the shock, the norms of society are heard in the doctors' diagnoses that she died of a weak heart because her beloved husband had bee returned to her and she could not handle her elation: she had died, they said, "of the joy that kills."
Only a woman who had looked to find her own purpose in life, as Chopin was forced to do, would be able to verbalize the irony that Louise dies not die because she is weak; she dies from the devastations of knowing freedom for an hour and realizing it has been snatched from her hands, so that she must now return to her life of purposelessness. She cannot live with this, and so she dies, more accurately, not from a weak heart in the face of joy, but from a broken heart at the loss of joy.