Why does Mrs. Mallard feel so “Free! Body and soul free” in "The Story of an Hour"?
When Mrs. Mallard learns of her husband's accidental death in Chopin's "The Story of an Hour," she weeps with "sudden, wild abandonment," and then she goes to her room alone, for "[S]he would have no one follow her." Alone upstairs in her room, facing an open window which looks out onto the spring day, Mrs. Mallard feels
pressed down by a physical exhaustion that hauted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.
In contrast to these feelings, Mrs. Mallard feels "the delicious breath of rain" in the air and hears the happy singing of birds. Clearly present in these passages is a subtle conflict. For, while downstairs, Mrs. Mallard has abandoned herself in weeping, but then gains control and retreats to her room. Now, in her room she sits motionless, but a sob finds its way into her throat, and she abandons herself again. However, this time the sob is for herself as she dully gazes "off yonder on one of those patches of blue sky." a symbol of the future. The brewing storm of emotions within her, "something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully," resists any control that Mrs. Mallard can exert because of her social mores. She is almost giddy as the realization that her life will no longer be dictated by the patriarchal society Mr. Mallard represents, under which her individuality has been repressed, comes to her. Under her breath, she whispers the words she dare not shout in joy, "free, free, free!"
The contrast between the joy that Louise Mallard feels as she utters these words and the "look of terror" that follows results from the repression of Mrs. Mallard as opposed to the newly realized freedom of Louis Mallard. Knowing that she is no longer subjugated elates her, but she also knows that she must act properly for a widow, and she does love her husband.
Mrs. Mallard, as this excellent short story opens, receives news of the death of her husband. However, very interestingly, although this makes her sad to begin with, as she reflects on the position that she is left in as a widow, without a husband, she actually begins to appreciate how much her marriage and union to her husband constrained her and prevented her from being the person that she wanted to be. A key quote to help us understand her feelings is the following:
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.
Mrs. Mallard thus experiences an epiphany, or a "brief moment of illumination," when she sees her marriage for what it has been for her: a way of restricting her and confining her. Now, however, she believes that as a widow, she can be "free" in every sense of the word, living her life the way she wants to.