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The Story of an Hour

by Kate Chopin

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What symbolism is used in Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"?

The symbols used in Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" include birds, patches of blue sky, doorways, and Mrs. Mallard's room and window.

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Mrs. Mallard herself is symbolic of the role women often found themselves trapped in during the latter part of the 1800s. Bound to husbands via laws and societal expectations which forbade them to own property, govern their own finances, or obtain meaningful employment outside their homes, women often longed for more. Thus, Mrs. Mallard's reaction to the news of her husband's death reflects what women of this era sought for: freedom.

Patches of blue sky appear just after Mrs. Mallard receives the news of her husband's death, symbolizing the hope in her new situation. Just as the sky was previously draped in a gray gloom, Mrs. Mallard has existed for years under the same gloom of monotony, hopeless that life will improve. The clouds begin to break just as Mrs. Mallard's situation changes, symbolizing the hope she feels for brighter days ahead.

An hour, referenced in the title, symbolizes how quickly a person's circumstances can change. Mrs. Mallard begins the story thinking "with a shudder that life might be long" and briefly experiences (false) thoughts of freedom before she realizes that her husband is alive after all—which kills her. This is the nature of life; in such a short duration of time, so much can change.

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Mrs. Mallard's heart trouble is a symbol of the way in which she feels crushed and imprisoned by her marriage. Her heart trouble is not just physical, it is also psychological in nature. As other educators have noted, the open window before which she stands is a symbol of the freedom she experiences upon hearing that her husband has died. The sparrows that Mrs. Mallard hears in the trees are also symbols of the freedom she has long desired, as are the spring and summer days that she imagines as she stands, arms outstretched before the windows. Her outstretched arms also symbolize her freedom, in contrast to her visions of her husband's hands, folded in death. His hands represent ties that bind and imprison her. In the end, her husband shows up, his hands gripping a sack and umbrella. His hands again stand for responsibility, for carrying the cares and restrictions of the world, unlike Mrs. Mallard's open arms that reached for the sky when she thought she was free. 

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In addition to the symbols of hope that the springtime present--the blue sky, singing birds, and "delicious breath of rain"--there are three symbols within Mrs. Mallard's house that are significant. The door to Mrs. Mallard's bedroom, the open window, and the front door of her house each represent a part of what happens to Mrs. Mallard during this eventful "story of an hour."

First, the door to Mrs. Mallard's room represents her mind and soul's inner sanctum. She retreats to her room and closes her door, staying there so long that her sister bows outside, looks through the keyhole, and begs her to open the door. That door represents her private thought life, her ability to consider her own needs for once, separate...

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from the needs of anyone else, even those who love her. This is where she is able to indulge her true feelings without concern for what others will think of her.

The open window is symbolic of the years of opportunity that spread out before her now. She spreads her arms out to welcome the years that will now belong to her absolutely.

Finally, the front door of her home represents the public world that she must live in. It is through the front door that Mr. Richards and Josephine have presumably entered, and it is through the front door that her husband enters. This is the world that places demands upon her, either with "a kind intention or a cruel intention." The fact that Brently Mallard, her husband, has "a latchkey" to this door shows his ownership of her outer life--his ability to "impose a private will" upon her. The disconnect between her inner life and the outer life imposed upon her, now completely illuminated for the first time, is the shock that stops her heart. 

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Much of the symbolism used in "The Story of an Hour" is meant to symbolize the freedom and happiness that Louise Mallard has longed for throughout her marriage, perhaps even throughout her entire life. First, her name is a symbol, the name of a duck that can fly free. There are other birds used as symbols in the story, the "countless sparrows" that "were twittering in the eaves." Other natural elements are symbols of freedom, the open window and "patches of blue sky." Additionally, there is a symbol of freedom in the "open square" she sees outside her window. The hints of spring and the sound of a man singing represent happiness, happiness that Louise Mallard seems to have been deprived of, at the very least, in her marriage.

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Chopin's use of weather is a symbol.  Chopin uses the symbolic value of weather to convey Louise Mallard's condition.  When she initially hears of her husband's death, the storm image is employed:  "When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. "  The idea of a storm having passed is reflective of how Chopin characterizes Louise upon contemplating the reality of her situation.  In understanding the full implications of the perceived death of her husband, the weather symbol is employed again:

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.

In this excerpt, the weather operates in a symbolic capacity.  It helps to convey a new start, one that Louise perceives is only possible because of her husband's death. Later in the story, Chopin uses the symbol of weather to convey Louise's state of mind, reflective of the freedom she hopes to experience:  "Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own." The storm has indeed passed, and in its place is a world of regeneration and rebirth, communicated by the weather. 

Another symbol is the staircase.  Initially, it represents an escalator to private mourning.  The staircase is the means by which Louise isolates herself from the rest of the world.  When she initially runs up the stairs, it is to achieve a sense of isolation from the world.  Yet, as she peers out the window, Louise recognizes what her life can be without Brently, and the result is that she becomes fundamentally changed.  It is through this growth that she reemerges, ready to interact with the world as a new woman.  From this, the staircase becomes a symbol of this interaction:

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 becomes a symbol of Louise's transformation.  On one hand, it was the means by which she privately mourned, where Louise did not allow anyone to follow her.  Towards the end of the story, the staircase becomes a portal of triumph where Louise as a "goddess of victory."  The symbol of the staircase is one that operates as both a means of achieving traditional mourning and then it becomes a means by which her own victory is achieved. Chopin uses both symbols as a means to communicate Louise's state of mind and her own subjective experience, accentuating it until the ending in which she dies from "the joy that kills."

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What are all of the themes and symbols portrayed in "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin?

Even though "The Story of an Hour" is a very short story, it is full of symoblism and depth.  It has various themes:  marriage, love, death, grief, freedom, the repression of women, the confines of marriage, feminism, irony, societal roles, social taboos, marital expectations, and happiness.  All of those themes could each be discussed in great detail, and supported within the text.

For symbolism, the greatest example can be found in the very lengthy description of the spring day that Louise views outside of her window.  Here we have a very short story, and yet Chopin though spending over a paragraph just on the weather was important enough to include.  The weather, the sunshine, birds, and song in the distance, all symbolize Louise's rather unconventional reaction to the news of her husband's death:  happiness and freedom.  The spring symbolizes a new beginning; the sunshine happiness and freedom, and the distant song the feeling of elation that she will in a minute, fully realize and embrace.  That weather scene is highly symbolic of Louise's feelings of being released from the shackles of marriage.

I hope that helped; good luck!

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