The Theme of Female Self-Assertion
In Donald F. Larsson's entry on Kate Chopin in Critical Survey of Short Fiction, we learn that "consistently ... strong-willed, independent heroines ... [who] cast a skeptical eye on the institution of marriage" are very characteristic of her stories. In "The Story of an Hour," we do not so much see as intuit Mrs. Mallard's skeptical eye. Certainly, we are told of the joy she feels with the freedom she finds in her husband's death, but we are not specifically told that she is skeptical of marriage in general. Indeed, if we take the last line of the story literally, we would understand that Mrs. Mallard was so enamored of her marriage to her husband that she died from the excitement of knowing he was still alive. Yet, obviously, Chopin is engaging in some heavy handed irony. Mrs. Mallard, the young "repressed" woman who began to look at her widowhood as a rebirth, similar to the "new spring" outside her window, did not die from such excitement. She expired from "a heart problem"—an instantaneous knowledge that her momentary glimpse into a "life she would live for herself," a "life that might be long," was not to be.
Some of Chopin's short stories were rejected for publication on moral grounds, for editors perceived in them an unseemly interest in female self-assertion and sexual liberation. Per Seyersted, Chopin's biographer, writes in his introduction to The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, Volume 1, that the "reason why editors turned down a number of her stories was very likely that her women became more passionate and emancipated." Given that "The Story of an Hour" was published in 1894, several years after it was written, we can comprehend the importance of moral grounds as a basis for rejection. Marriage was considered a sacred institution. Divorce was quite rare in the 1800s and if one was to occur, men were automatically given legal control of all property and children. Even the constitutional amendments of 1868 and 1870, granting rights of citizenship and voting, gave these rights to African-Americans not women. Women were not granted the right to vote in political elections until 1920. Obviously then, a female writer who wrote of women wanting independence would not be received very highly, especially one who wrote of a woman rejoicing in the death of her husband. The fact that she pays for her elation with her life at the end of the story is not enough to redeem either the character or the author.
Although "The Story of an Hour" is brief, Chopin demonstrates her skills as a writer in several ways. Fred Lewis Pattee says in A History of American Literature Since 1870, that the strength of Chopin's work comes from "what may be described as a native aptitude for narration amounting almost to genius." Larsson notes her remarkable ability to "convey character and setting simply yet completely.'' All of these qualities are evidenced in "The Story of an Hour."
The story opens with the narrator telling us that Mrs. Mallard has "a heart trouble." A quick reading of the phrase might mislead the reader into thinking that Mrs. Mallard, therefore, has heart disease. Yet Chopin chose her phrase with care. She wants her readers to know that Mrs. Mallard has a very specific condition that interferes with the workings of her heart. Later, when we see Mrs. Mallard "warmed and relaxed,'' we realize that the problem with her heart is that her marriage has not allowed her to "live for herself.''
Another instance of Chopin's gift of narration enables the reader to understand that what is being told is more than a tale. This illustration involves Mrs. Mallard's reaction to the news of her husband's death: "She did not hear the story as many women would have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance." If a reader had paused at this sentence, he or she might have wondered what there was in the marriage that would keep Mrs. Mallard from becoming prostrate with grief. The reader might have questioned why Mrs. Mallard was not...
(The entire section is 5,617 words.)