The Theme of Female Self-Assertion
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1442
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 consumed with wondering how she would go on with her life without her husband. Yet, in the very next line we see that she is assuredly grieving as she cries with "wild abandonment." We find ourselves a bit surprised at this point. Surely a woman in a troubled marriage would not carry on in such a manner. In this instant, Chopin has hinted that a problem exists, but also that Mrs. Mallard is not "paralyzed'' by the significance that she is alone. Chopin elaborates upon this when the narrator says that Mrs. Mallard "would have no one follow her." While the implication is that she would have no one follow her to her room, the reader wonders in hindsight whether Mrs. Mallard might have meant also that she would have no one interfere with her life again.
It is also easy to come to the same conclusion as Larsson does, that the setting is simple but definitely complete. The breaking of the news takes place in an unspecified room within the Mallard's house. The revelation of freedom occurs in the bedroom, and Mrs. Mallard's demise occurs on the stairway leading to the front door that her husband opened. Chopin gives us no details about the stairway or the room in which we first meet Mrs. Mallard. Although news of death and death itself occur in these areas and are certainly among a few of life's most tragic and momentous events, the setting could be anywhere. Conversely, we are inundated, or overwhelmed, with details in the bedroom where Mrs. Mallard becomes her own person. We see the "comfortable, roomy armchair" in which she sits with "her head thrown back upon the cushion." We see the "tops of trees ... aquiver with new spring life'' that we can hear and smell from her window.
Some critics argue that Chopin wisely tempers the emotional elements inherent in Mrs. Mallard's situation. Although the emotion in Mrs. Mallard's bedroom is indisputable, the "suspension of intelligent thought'' removes from the reader the need to share in the widow's grief and instead allows him or her to remain an onlooker, as eager as Mrs. Mallard to see "what was approaching to possess her." Other critics credit Chopin's readings of Charles Darwin and other scientists who prescribed to the "survival of the fittest" theory as the impetus, or driving force, behind her questioning of contemporary mores and the constraints placed upon women. In "The Story of an Hour" Chopin implicitly questions the institution of marriage, perhaps as a by-product or her scientific questioning of mores, but she does so in a cleverly tempered way.
Chopin, fatherless at four, was certainly a product of her Creole heritage, and was strongly influenced by her mother and her maternal grandmother. Perhaps it is because she grew up in a female-dominated environment that she was not a stereotypical product of her times and so could not conform to socially acceptable themes in her writing. Chopin even went so far as to assume the managerial role of her husband's business after he died in 1883. This behavior, in addition to her fascination with scientific principles, her upbringing, and her penchant for feminist characters would seem to indicate that individuality, freedom, and joy were as important to Chopin as they are to the characters in her stories. Yet it appears to be as difficult for critics to agree on Chopin's view of her own life as it is for them to accept the heroines of her stories. Per Seyersted believes that Chopin enjoyed "living alone as an independent writer," but other critics have argued that Chopin was happily married and bore little resemblance to the characters in her stories.
Perhaps Larsson's analysis of Chopin in Critical Survey of Short Fiction best sums up the importance of Chopin to present-day readers. He writes: ''Her concern with women's place in society and in marriage, her refusal to mix guilt with sexuality, and her narrative stance of sympathetic detachment make her as relevant to modern readers as her marked ability to convey character and setting." It can be inspiring to know that more than a century ago, women were not necessarily so different from what they are today. Certainly, woman have experienced and benefited from many newer technologies and changing attitudes, but, for a woman, finding her way in life can still present temporary difficulties. Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" illustrates many of these issues.
Source: Jennifer Hicks, for Short Stones for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
Jennifer Hicks is director of the Academic Support and Writing Assessment program at Massachusetts Bay Community College.
A Night in Acadie: The Confidence of Success
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 708
... "The Story of an Hour" recounts Louise Mallard's unexpected response to the reported death of her husband, Brently, in a train accident. Grieving alone in her room, she slowly recognizes that she has lost only chains: '"Free! Body and soul free!' she kept whispering." Then when her husband suddenly reappears, the report of his death a mistake, she drops dead at the sight of him—of "heart disease," the doctors announce, "of joy that kills."
Chopin's handling of details illustrates how subtly she manages this controversial material. Louise Mallard's heart disease, for example, the key to the final ironies and ambiguities, is introduced in the first sentence, like the loaded gun of melodrama. But her illness gradually deepens in significance from a physical detail—a symptom of delicacy and a reason to break the bad news gently—to a deeply spiritual problem. The more we learn about Brently Mallard's overbearing nature and the greater his wife's relief grows, the better we understand her "heart trouble." Indeed, that "trouble" vanishes with Brently's death and returns—fatally—only when he reappears.
But Chopin also exposes Louise's complicity in Mallard's subtle oppression. Her submission to his "blind persistence'' has been the guise of Love, that self-sacrificing Victorian ideal. Glorified in fiction Chopin had often decried, this love has been, for Louise and others, the primary purpose of life. But through her new perspective, she comprehends that "love, the unsolved mystery" counts for very little "in face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!" As Chopin often insists, love is not a substitute for selfhood; indeed, selfhood is love's pre-condition. Such a strong and unconventional assertion of feminine independence likely explains Century's rejection. Its editor, R. W. Gilder, had zealously guarded the feminine ideal of self-denying love, and was that very summer publishing editorials against women's suffrage as a threat to family and home.
The setting, too, reflecting Chopin's local-color lessons, buttresses her themes. Louise stares through an "open window" at a scene which is "all aquiver with the new spring life." A renewing rain accompanies her "storm of grief," followed by "patches of blue sky." Then, explicitly "through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air," "it" comes "creeping out of the sky" upon her. Louise at first dutifully resists and then helplessly succumbs. The sense of physical, even sexual, release that accompanies her acquiescence to this nameless "thing" underpins a vision of freedom that Chopin characteristically affirms as a human right—as natural as generation, spring, or even death.
The transforming power of that insight is echoed in Louise's altered view of the future, whose length "only yesterday'' she had dreaded, but to which she now "opened and spread her arms ... in welcome." But it is a false vision. The habit of repression has so weakened Louise that her glimpse of freedom—her birthright—does not empower her, but leaves her unable to cope with the everyday reality to which she is abruptly restored. In her conventional marriage, the vision is truly illusory.
Chopin skillfully manipulates the point of view to intensify the final revelation and the shifting perspectives on Louise's life. "Mrs. Mallard" appears to us at first from a distance; but the focus gradually internalizes, until we are confined within her thoughts, struggling with "Louise" toward insight. As she leaves the private room of her inner self, our point of view retreats; we see her "like a goddess of Victory" as she descends the stairs, and then, as the door opens, we are identified with the unsuspecting Brently, sharing his amazement at his sister-in-law's outcry and his friend's futile effort to block his wife's view. The final sentence, giving the doctors' clinical interpretation of her death, is still more distant. That distance—and the shift it represents—is crucial. To outsiders, Louise Mallard's demise is as misunderstood as is her reaction to Brently's death. That even the respected medical profession misinterprets her collapse indicts the conventional view of female devotion and suggests that Louise Mallard is not the only woman whose behavior has been misread....
Source: Barbara C. Ewell, '"A Night in Acadie': The Confidence of Success," in Kate Chopin, Ungar Publishing, 1986, pp. 88-91.
Veiled Hints: An Affective Stylist's Reading of Kate Chopin's "Story of an Hour"
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2401
"The Story of an Hour" is built around the "expression of a woman's shockingly unorthodox feelings about her marriage''; so says Bert Bender, in an essay devoted to Chopin's short fiction. Similarly, Per Seyersted calls the story "an extreme example of the theme of self-assertion." Although both critics display considerable perception and insight, neither adequately accounts for the actual effect of the story. As we move through this short story, one element in our experience certainly points to self-assertion, encouraging us to hope for it in ourselves and Louise Mallard both. But the text also undermines, with its qualifications and negatives, all possibility for the fulfillment of this hope. In contrast to the thematic movement toward self-assertion, affective stylistics reveals a more subtle movement, in the reader, toward doubt. Chopin stimulates a sense that something, a vague something, is askew. Upon close analysis, word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence, a reader finds that Chopin denies her reader information about those figures who instigate or are responsible for action in the story. Further, as she manipulates grammatical structures and conventions, Chopin thwarts the reader's expectations and confidence.
The plot of "The Story of an Hour" may be summarized quite simply. After hearing of her husband's death, Louise Mallard leaves her sister Josephine and her husband's friend Richards for the solitude of her upstairs bedroom. Josephine and Richards allow her to go, assuming that she needs time alone to vent her grief. As Louise contemplates the fact of Brently Mallard's death, however, her grief gives way to a far more powerful feeling—a feeling of joy in her own freedom. Louise realizes that she will feel sad when she sees Brently's "kind, tender hands folded in death," but she also realizes that for the first time in years she actually wants to live. While Louise is intoxicated with this newfound joy, Josephine, who fears that Louise might harm herself in her anguish over Brently's death, implores her to leave the locked room and come downstairs. As the two women descend the staircase, Brently Mallard walks in the front door. Chopin comments, "he had been far from the scene of accident, and did not even know there had been one." Upon seeing her husband, Louise suffers a heart attack and dies. This simple surface action belies the complexities of the prose style.
The first sentence of "The Story of an Hour" reads: "Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death." If we approach this sentence merely as factual communique, we might say that it conveys three messages: Mrs. Mallard suffers from a heart trouble; Mrs. Mallard's husband has died; someone has taken great care to inform Mrs. Mallard of her husband's death. If, however, we analyze the way in which we proceed through the sentence, we discover a more complex layer of meaning. The first word of the sentence, knowing, introduces a participial phrase. A reader expects, and grammatical usage requires, that a primary position participle modify the subject of the subsequent independent clause. Chopin violates our expectations. As we move through the participial phrase and into the independent clause, we expect to be told who knows that Mrs. Mallard suffers from a heart condition, but Chopin's passive construction—"great care was taken"—denies us this knowledge. The agent remains unidentified. This denial is the first and perhaps most powerful instance of Chopin's manipulation of sentence structure in order to withhold information about an agent. In this instance, although we know what the sentence says, we cannot be positive about what it means. We must wonder why the author refuses to divulge the agent of an action after she has structured her sentence to anticipate this information.
The reader's experience of the first sentence actually opposes the surface communication of its main clause: "great care was taken to break the news to Mrs. Mallard." This clause suggests that the situation is under control, but Chopin's ungrammatical construction hints at just the opposite: our experience generates a very vague feeling that despite "great care," something is amiss. We are as ignorant about the source of our feeling as we are about the agent of the first sentence, and our ignorance fosters a skepticism that further colors our reading. As a result, we may question yet another small deviation from common usage within the first sentence: why does Chopin choose to modify Mrs. Mallard's heart trouble with the indefinite article a? The more usual construction would be simply, "Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with heart trouble." The indefinite article implies that Mrs. Mallard suffers from a particular kind of heart trouble, and yet, because we are not told which kind, our desire for more knowledge is frustrated at the same time that we learn that this information does exist. The prose style thus withholds information and undermines our confidence as readers, and so we enter Chopin's story with some hesitation, some trepidation.
The second paragraph opens by identifying the agent who eluded us in the first: "It was her sister Josephine who told her, in broken sentences, veiled hints that revealed in half concealing.'' This identification is qualified, however, by Chopin's cool reportorial tone and the construction "it was," a topicalized construction that simultaneously focuses upon the agent and objectifies her. As focus of the sentence, Josephine should be its grammatical subject; instead, she suffers relegation to the subordinate clause. Thus, although we are told who instigated an action, this agent's power diminishes. The meaningless "it was" assumes priority. Chopin chose not to use the simpler "Josephine told her," apparently because this more direct construction does not hint at the uncertainty that the more distanced phrasing allows. In her description of Josephine's broken sentences, Chopin pinpoints the source of the uncertainty that the reader experiences while progressing through the story: "veiled hints that revealed in half concealing." We are meant to infer that Josephine intentionally obscures the details of Brently's death in order to spare Louise pain, but another inference is possible: Josephine's hints are "veiled" and "half concealing" because, without knowing it herself, Josephine delivers information that is not wholly true. Although Chopin identifies the agent in this sentence ("It was Josephine") the sentence as a whole undermines the competence of that agent. Thus, within the first two paragraphs of "The Story of an Hour," we are confronted with two instances in which matter and manner conflict. Neither of these instances is blatant, but a reader informed by affective stylistics cannot help but feel that he experiences something unusual here, and something that bodes ill.
The next two sentences in the second paragraph do nothing to alleviate these sensations. "Her husband's friend Richards was there, too, near her. It was he who had been in the newspaper office when intelligence of the railroad disaster was received, with Brently Mallard's name leading the list of 'killed'." This sentence also appears straightforward: we are told who Richards is ("her husband's friend") as well as where he is ("there near her"); and these simple statements of fact reassure the reader. The reassurance is, however, only momentary. The next sentence opens with "it was," which has the same effect here as earlier: it focuses, then subordinates, thereby reducing the power associated with a fully realized agent-verb construction. Three other aspects of this sentence also diminish or deny our sense of agent. First, through the passive verb in the adverbial clause "when intelligence of the railroad disaster was received," Chopin refuses to provide any information about who sent the news. Second, she tells us that Brently Mallard's name leads the list of killed. Although it is not unusual to relay information of a man's death by stating that his "name" (only a part of the man) leads a list, this synecdoche distances a reader, if ever so slightly, from the death of the whole man. Finally, Chopin encloses killed in quotation marks; again, this may be idiomatic, but within the context of the first three sentences of this story, even idioms become suspect....
Louise responds immediately to the news of Brently's death: "She wept at once, with a sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone." Chopin presents us with a pattern of assertion and negation; we read one sentence in which Louise appears to act only to learn in the next that she is subjected to something that acts upon her. Louise weeps, but she has abandoned herself to "the storm of grief that must spend itself before Louise is free to go to her room. Repetition of this pattern increases its effectiveness. Only two sentences after the sentences above we come upon the following: "Into this armchair she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul." We cannot even credit Louise with responsibility for her own sinking;"a physical exhaustion'' presses her down. But the most forceful example of this pattern occurs a few paragraphs later. Louise sits in a chair near the window, observing the "signs of new spring life": "She sat with her head thrown back upon the cushion of the chair, quite motionless, except when a sob came up into her throat and shook her." Louise obviously has far less control than does this sob, which shakes her and which, curiously, appears to act independently of the woman in whose throat it arises....
At this point we want to applaud Louise's action; we want to encourage her independence. But our experience with ambiguity requires us to hesitate before approving Louise's surrender to an unknown "something"; schooled by the text, we sense the danger here. Words describing this surrender do nothing to mitigate our fear. We read a series of sentences that focus on parts instead of wholes (her eyes "stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body"), and then we are told: "She did not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her. A clear and exalted perception enabled her to dismiss the suggestion as trivial." Louise may not pause to question the possibly monstrous quality of her joy, but we do. After all, the joy is only vaguely specified (it may be monstrous, but we do not know precisely), but it is "holding" Louise. Then, too, we might question the adjectives "clear and exalted" as modifiers for "perception." To this point, nothing within our experience has been clear and exalted; having been exposed to one ambiguity after the next, we feel skeptical about the flat assertion of clarity.
We follow Louise's mental and physical movements during her "brief moment of illumination." She remembers the "kind, tender hands" of her husband and realizes that she will weep anew when she views the corpse. But looking yet further into the future, she knows that she will delight in her solitude; she opens her arms to the long procession of years "that would belong to her absolutely." Given Louise's history of powerlessness, however, we suspect her ability to commandeer these years. Chopin substantiates this suspicion a few sentences later, in a statement of Louise's feelings about love and self-assertion: "What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being.'' The sentence itself seems to imply that Louise possesses this impulse, but all description up to this point suggests that Louise is possessed by the impulse. Because of Chopin's phrasing, both active and passive possibilities exist simultaneously; Louise is both subject and object.
Josephine, afraid that Louise will make herself ill (ironically, Josephine's perception of Louise's illness differs both from that of the reader and of Louise) calls to her from outside the locked door. Louise opens the door and the two women descend the staircase. After the momentous occurrence in the preceding paragraphs—Louise's decision to live for herself—the rhythm of the sentences here appears too easy. A fault lies beneath this smooth surface. Then: "Some one was opening the front door with a latchkey. It was Brently Mallard who entered." Within the space of two sentences, our unspoken questions, our unconscious suspicions, all stemming from Chopin's refusal to supply us with expected information, fall into place. The first sentence, "Some one was opening," prompts us to recall the description of Louise's joy: "There was something coming to her... What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name." The sentences merge; in both instances, we feel thwarted by insufficient information. In the second instance, however, Chopin grants us a full report: no longer"subtle and elusive,'' the agent is realized in the shape of Brently Mallard. Although couched in the reportorial "it was'' construction, this emphatic identification is stunning. We sensed throughout the story that something is wrong, but the verification is terribly frustrating. We do not want the story to end this way: against all evidence, we hope that we are wrong and that our suspicions are misplaced. But the story ends. Louise sees her husband. "When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills."
An almost inevitable response to reading this story for this first time is to read it again. Multiple readings reveal even more clearly the cumulative effect of Chopin's subtle textual manipulations. If we review the story as a whole, we realize that the disquieting effect of the first sentence is heightened as we confront instances of agent disjunction and pronominalization, ambiguity, and diminution. Our positive feelings about Louise's self-assertion are qualified word by word. Although Louise struggles with a few moments of fearful anticipation, her progression toward self-assertion is predicated on "news" and "veiled hints," and she gives herself up to an undefined "something" without stopping to ask if it is or is not a "monstrous joy." As much as we would like to follow her, the route is closed to us. The cumulative experience of the text does not allow such simple complicity.
Source: Madonne M. Miner, "Veiled Hints: An Affective Stylist's Reading of Kate Chopin's 'Story of an Hour'," in The Markham Review, Vol. 11, Winter, 1982, pp. 29-32.