When the story begins, the narrator informs the reader that it is known that Louise Mallard has a heart condition. Her sister, Josephine, is therefore careful in breaking the news that Louise's husband has been killed in a train accident. Louise immediately cries and retreats to her room. Emotionally and physically exhausted from that outburst of grief, she sinks into a chair and then stares out the window. Her sobbing subsides and she starts to have quite different feelings. As the reality of her husband's death sinks in, she suddenly realizes that she has a new kind of freedom. She would no longer have to live for her husband. She would no longer have to be dependent upon him. She would also no longer have to bend her will to his, as this was the custom in traditional marriage roles:
There would be no one to live for her 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. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.
Reveling in this new independence, she exits her room and discovers her husband at the door. She dies "of a joy that kills." In other words, she dies because of the shock and heartbreak she experiences with having lost that new freedom.