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.