The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin

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At a Glance

  • Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" is considered a classic of feminist literature. The main character's surprising reaction to her husband's death reflects the often complicated feelings women in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries had about marriage. Louise Mallard's desire to be free of her husband belies the essentially repressive nature of marriage at that time.
  • Chopin uses setting as a foil for Louise's emotions. Her husband Brently's supposed train wreck takes place in spring, while birds are singing and flowers are in bloom. This abundance of fresh life symbolizes Louise's newfound freedom, which withers suddenly when Brently is revealed to be alive.
  • For Louise, death represents freedom. Her husband's alleged death releases her from the trappings of marriage and domesticity, momentarily affording her a freedom she didn't know she wanted. When Brently returns unscathed, Louise dies on the spot. Death is, in effect, her only escape.

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Nature imagery underlines the plot and meaning. Although authors typically associate death with autumn and winter, Brentley’s supposed death occurs in the spring. The trees are “all aquiver” with new life. Rain has fallen, purifying the air, and now the clouds are parting to show “patches of blue sky.” This scene mirrors Louise’s situation. The death of Brentley marks the end of the winter of her discontent; her soul can awake from its torpor. She can realize the full potential of her life, so she, like the trees, feels aquiver with life. The clouds again represent her married life, which cast shadows on her happiness, but now the horizon of her life is clearing. As she contemplates her future, she imagines “spring days and summer days” only, not autumn or winter days, because she links herself to the seasons of rebirth and ripening.

In contrast to the world of nature is the cloistered, confining house, symbol of domesticity. In her own room she looks through an open window, another symbol of her freedom. The window does not intervene between her and nature and allows her the scope of infinite vision. She herself locks and unlocks the door to her room, admitting or excluding whomever she wants. She has what Virginia Woolf stressed as so important, a room of her own. However, it is only a temporary, and finally an inadequate, refuge. She leaves it, as she must, to rejoin her sister and Richards; in unlocking her door she paradoxically consigns herself to the prison of her house. Nowhere else in the house is there even a glimpse of nature, and, in contrast to the open window, the front door is locked; only Brentley has the key. He can come and go as he pleases, but she remains trapped within.

Related to this contrast of nature and house is the imagery of up and down. Louise’s room is upstairs, and from there she looks at the tops of trees and hears the songs of birds on the roof. Her freedom is thus literally elevating. Her leaving this refuge and going down the stairs foreshadows her loss of freedom. She descends from the heaven of solitude to the hell of marriage again, where she encounters her husband. Now death is her only salvation. Instead of soaring freely like the birds, she can escape only by sinking still lower, into the grave.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Woman Question
"The Story of an Hour" was published in 1894, an era in which many social and cultural questions occupied Americans' minds. One of these, referred to as the "Woman Question," involved which roles were acceptable for women to assume in society. Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1892) had further incited this controversy. Darwin's theory of evolution was used by both sides of the issue; some argued the theory supported female self-assertion and independence, others felt the theory proved that motherhood should be the primary role of a woman in society.

Although women were not granted the right to vote until 1920, the struggle for their enfranchisement began in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention in New York state....

(The entire section is 1,621 words.)