Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

A popular writer during her lifetime, Chopin is best known today for her psychological novel The Awakening. Chopin's depiction of female self-assertion was regarded as immoral. When Chopin submitted "The Story of an Hour" to Century magazine, it was rejected. After Chopin's collection of short stories, Bayou Folk garnered critical acclaim, Vogue published the story. According to Barbara C. Ewell in her book, Kate Chopin, the editor of Century, R. W. Gilder, rejected the manuscript because of its feminist message. The magazine had been publishing anti-suffragist articles during this period and upheld a vision of women as selfless wives and mothers.

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Since the 1960s, with the rise of the feminist movement, Chopin's fiction, including "The Story of an Hour," has been rediscovered and is now acclaimed for precisely the reasons it was denounced during her lifetime. Per Seyersted, in Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, extols the story's "theme of self-assertion." Burt Bender, in his essay "Kate Chopin's Lyrical Short Stories," argues that the story is a "shockingly unorthodox" expression of the inequities of marriage. Other critics, while agreeing that the story is bold and unconventional, qualify the view that Louise becomes an independent, assertive woman during the hour in which the story takes place. In Verging on the Abyss: The Social Fiction of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton, Mary E. Papke considers the darker aspects of Chopin's vision of feminine identity. For Papke, the ending of the story implies that should a woman glimpse herself as an individual and then be denied the chance to live freely, the result will be death, or the dissolution of that new identity. Unless the world changes, Papke argues, Chopin suggests that there is no hope for independent, unconventional women to survive in society.

In addition to her treatment of social issues, "The Story of an Hour" has been heralded for its formal strengths. Chopin's use of irony and ambiguity have been extolled by many critics. Other critics find fault in some of the formal aspects of the story. In an essay published in the The Markham Review, Madonne M. Miner analyzes how readers respond to the organization of words in the story. Focusing on Chopin's use of the passive voice, Miner argues that the story's themes of autonomy and identity are undermined by its grammatical structure. For instance, Miner points out that Louise does not possess but is "possessed by" her impulses. Many of the story's key sentences, including the first one, are written in the passive voice. For Miner, although the reader may wish to identify with Louise's possession of self, the language of the story keeps the reader distanced.

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