Explain how specific symbols relate to plot and character in Chopin's "The Story of an Hour."

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Chopin is quite effective in linking specific symbols of the story to its plot and characters.  Her use of symbols are avenues through which she is able to capture critical aspects of both.  In analyzing the symbols in the story, more insight is gained into plot and characterization,illuminating why such a short sample of writing is so engrossing.

Chopin uses weather as a symbol.  When she receives the news of her husband's death, Louise processes it as a dutiful wife would.  She sobs, goes to her room in mourning, and is shut off from the rest of the world. She is overcome by "a storm of grief."  It is at this instant where Louise notices the outside world and where weather is symbolic:

She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.

There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled one above the other in the west facing her window

The language that Chopin uses to describe the weather is significant.  There is a restorative element that is indicated with images such as "the tops of trees that were all aquiver with new spring life" as well as the image of a type of baptismal rebirth in the "breath of rain."  At the same time, the sparrows and birds are symbolic of freedom and light.  The final image in this theory of correspondence would be the "patches of blue sky" that break through the clouds. When she reconfigures her life, Louise sees herself as living out "spring days and summer days," almost repudiating winter and fall.  All of these images are symbolic of Louise Mallard's emerging new identity.

Chopin uses weather symbolism as a way for the reader to better understand plot and characterization.  It is from this point that Louise is able to see the death of her husband in a new light. Once the symbolic use of weather is employed, the plot of the story takes a hard and rather unexpected turn. From the traditional grieving widow, something new is evident.  The symbolic use of weather allows a greater depth to Louise's characterization to emerge. The reader is able to gain insight into Louise's mind because through changes in weather from winter dreariness to springtime hope, a similar transformation is taking place in Louise's characterization.  At the same time, the symbolic use of weather operates as a portal to the path of liberation that she begins to walk.  Spring is restorative and this experience is symbolic of how she views what can be in light of what was.   It is in this light where weather becomes an important symbol.

Another symbol that occupies significance in the story would be the staircase. In the exposition of the story, the staircase is what Louise takes to go upstairs.  It is a literal ascension into a new world, for Louise's change takes place in the room at its top.  When she emerges from the room as a new woman, she regally descends down the staircase: "There was a feverish triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory. She clasped her sister's waist, and together they descended the stairs. Richards stood waiting for them at the bottom."  The staircase is a portal that takes Louise to one world and then escorts her into an entirely new one for upon reaching the bottom of the staircase, Louise finds her husband and dies of the "joy that kills."  The staircase is a symbol of ascension in both mind and spirit.  It facilitates the plot in how Louise changes both times she uses it.

Finally, time operates as a symbol.  The title is indicative of this, reflecting how much reality can change even though time is constant and unchanging.  The entire frame of the story's reference takes place in a limited amount of time.  Yet, within this hour, Louise's subjective moves back into the past and the future, with a foot in the present.  When the full force of what it means to be free descends upon her, Louise configures time in a way that cuts through its constancy and seemingly inescapable quality:

There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. 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.

"Those coming years" in the future are simultaneously met with a past filled with "blind persistence."  Time becomes symbolic because Louise is able to sift through her past and project into her future all within the hour, what would be the last hour of her life.  For Louise, time is symbolic of a life encompassed with regret, denial of opportunity, and the hope to change all of what is into something that can be.  Time becomes a symbol of the subjective's conditional hope within the future.  The ending where Louise dies of "the joy that kills" is the collision between that subjective construction and the inescapable quality of time's reality.  In this symbol, both characterization and plot are enhanced.

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