Louise Mallard is a married woman who like many women of her time felt she had no identity or worth to society other than as the daughter of a father and the wife of a husband.
The reader is told at the beginning of the story that Louise has a heart condition. Upon discovering that her husband has been in a train wreck, her friend and her sister gently tell her that he is dead. She cries hysterically at first, and then she goes to her room to be alone. She thinks about her life and realizes now that her husband is gone, she has the freedom to do as she pleases when she pleases. Although her husband has never been mean or abusive to her, he has totally controlled her life, so much so that Louise dreaded the future. She had even hoped she would not live a long life. Now that her husband is dead, she looks forward to living a long time and enjoying her freedom. She then goes downstairs with a renewed hope for the future, and her husband walks in. He hadn't been on the train after all. Louise drops dead when she sees him. The doctors say she died because she was so happy to see her husband alive. This is ironic because the reader knows she dies because she is devastated that her husband is alive. Her hopes for a wonderful future last less than an hour.
Kate Chopin, the author, wants the reader to understand what it was like for women during this period of time. They were much like property and had no rights of their own. Louise Mallard needed to feel that she was worth something based on what she could contribute to the world. She needed to discover who she was, what she wanted in life, and for her needs and wants to be important to someone other than herself. On a broader scale, we can expand this theme to the need of every person to feel useful and worthy. Each person needs to know he/she has some kind of control over his own life and can contribute something important to society.
The story is about a woman, Mrs. Mallard, whose husband unexpectedly dies in a train wreck. Her sister and her husband's friend break the news gently to her because Mrs. Mallard has a heart disease, and they are concerned that the shock may be too much for her.
Mrs. Mallard immediately falls to weeping and goes up to her room. Once there and sitting in her comfortable chair and looking out the open window at the patch of blue sky showing through the opening in the clouds, she suddenly realizes that she is not entirely sad, that, in fact, she finally feels free for the first time in her life.
When she opens the door to her sister and begins down the stairs, her husband, Brently, shows up. He hadn't been in the accident after all. Upon seeing him, Louise Mallard (who never had a name of her own before her husband's "death") drops dead. The doctor says she died from too much joy.
Probably the most obvious themes of the story have to do with discovery of a self-identity and the role of women in marriage during the early feminist movement. Louise is only her husband's wife before the accident, but afterwards becomes her own person, if only for an hour.