Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour," published in 1894, occupied a time in America in which many social and cultural questions were raised. One of these questions, "The Woman Question," involved which roles were acceptable for women. The controversy was fueled by the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1892 which raised arguments on both sides: some felt that the theory of evolution support female assertion; others felt that the theory proved that motherhood should be the primary role.
In addition, the struggle for women's franchisement had begun in 1848; and, when the 15th Amendment was passed in 1869, many feminists such as Susan B. Anthony refused to support it because it denied women the vote. In 1890, however, Wyoming became the first state to grant women the vote. But, despite all these attempts at reform, mainstream Victorian culture viewed womens' role as that of mother and mistress of the home under the rule of her husband and devoted to her children.
Kate Chopin, an independent spirit herself, having grown up surrounded by smart, single, assertive women. For instance, her grandmother was the first woman in St. Louis to be granted a legal separation from her husband; she raised her five children on her own while running a successful shipping business. When Chopin's husband died of an illness, she ran his plantation on her own for a year, then moved back to her mother's; but, when she died, Kate was on her own again, supporting herself and her children by writing.
Thus, the spirit of woman is a motif of Chopin's writing. Knowing from her own experience that women are capable of supporting themselves, Chopin champions these women and scorns the oppression of women in the Victorian Age.
Mrs. Mallard is such a woman, repressed to the point that she has "a heart trouble." When she first hears the report of her husband's death, she reacts somewhat hysterically at first; then, in the privacy of her bedroom, long repressed feelings choke their way into her throat, until she utters her realization: "Free! Body and soul free!"--a realization that suggests the cruelty of the Victorian concept that the wife is subservient to her husband and has no life outside the family.