The Story of an Hour Analysis

  • Louise's newfound hope for the future in the wake of her husband's death encapsulates the oftentimes repressive nature of nineteenth-century marriages.
  • Chopin uses setting as a foil for Louise's emotions. Her husband's supposed death takes place in spring, the season of renewal. This abundance of fresh life symbolizes Louise's newfound freedom, which withers when Brently returns alive.
  • For Louise, death represents freedom. Her husband's alleged death releases her from the trappings of marriage and domesticity. When Brently returns unscathed, Louise dies instantly. Death is, in effect, her only escape.

Analysis

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Last Reviewed on July 15, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 855

The search for identity and selfhood, especially by married women, was a common theme across many of Chopin’s works, including her novel The Awakening and the short story “Wiser Than God.” Indeed, Louise Mallard is somewhat of an ideological precursor to The Awakening’s Edna Pontelier, as both women choose death as a preferable option to the confines of an unhappy marriage. Furthermore, the concept of female self-fulfillment was salient to the womens’ rights movement of the late nineteenth century, as women struggled to define themselves as a unique political and social class. Though the womens’ rights movement is not directly referenced in “The Story of an Hour,” Louise’s feelings regarding the restrictive nature of her marriage aligned with the expressed beliefs of many women’s rights activists, such as Susan B. Anthony, that traditional Western marriages were inequitable and designed to deny women personhood. Indeed, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, a seminal text in the development of common law that went on to form the basis for many arguments against women’s suffrage, claimed that women ceased to be individuals once they were married. 

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Marriage was viewed as both a symbolic and literal union between individuals, and women were expected to forfeit the majority of their individual legal rights in favor of being regarded as an accessory to their husbands’ estates. Louise refers to love as an “unsolved mystery” and compares it unfavorably with the self-assertion she craves. Marriage has left her feeling trapped, and the idea of being free to live her life as she chooses thrills her more than a relationship ever could. This type of freedom was something that was oftentimes only attainable for women through widowhood, as unmarried women faced a number of hardships that rendered remaining single just as unpleasant as married life. Love was the promised reward for women who chose to forfeit their independence in favor of marriage. Louise, at least, seems to believe that such a trade was not worth the cost. Love is presented as a nebulous concept, whereas freedom is more tangible. The outside world that bursts with new spring life and snippets of song beckons to Louise, whereas love remains an “unsolved mystery” that seems insignificant in the face of a life lived solely for oneself.

Louise’s assertion that the imposition of one person’s will on another is a “crime” is a direct refutation of the belief that women should be naturally subservient and obedient. Instead, this sort of suppression is figured as unnatural, estranging women from themselves and sowing resentment between spouses. Louise’s newfound widowhood awakens her to her own desires and aspirations, and she begins to look forward to living a long life rather than shuddering at the thought. By Louise’s account, Brently is not a bad man, and he seems to have truly loved her, but the inequitable state of their marriage rendered Louise incapable of loving him properly. In the absence of marital equality and respect, Louise’s feelings became warped enough that she resented Brently and, in an indirect way, viewed an early death as preferable to a long life.

The tragic timing of Louise’s newfound will to live underscores Chopin’s use of irony throughout the story. Readers, along with Louise Mallard, are led to believe that Brently Mallard is dead. However, his unexpected arrival, compounded with Louise’s death upon seeing him alive, produces situational irony by subverting the expectations established earlier in the story. Louise’s epiphanies regarding her own desire for freedom are predicated on the belief that her husband is dead; his sudden reappearance is incompatible with her newfound hope for the future. Furthermore, readers are invited to celebrate Louise’s emancipation along with her, and the realization that her freedom was only an illusion creates a resigned sense of hopelessness. 

It is through this shared emotional journey that readers are given greater insight into the true cause of Louise’s sudden death. The doctors declare her dead of “the joy that kills,” a paradoxical phrase that highlights all the ways in which those around Louise have failed to understand her. Josephine and Richards take great care to be gentle when informing Louise of Brently’s death, and even at the peak of Louise’s joy, they continue to mistake her excitement for grief. The doctors seem to share this misconception, believing that Louise was so overcome with joy at Brently’s reappearance that her frail heart could not bear it. Readers, however, were privy to Louise’s unfiltered happiness at the thought of a future free from marital expectations. This disparity in perception creates dramatic irony, and the tragedy of Louise’s life is made clear: Louise’s complicated emotions about love and marriage have no place in a patriarchal narrative; instead, her innermost thoughts and feelings are twisted and interpreted by others to reflect those expected of women. Louise’s “monstrous joy” at the prospect of freedom is replaced by the more respectable “joy that kills,” reaffirming the frailty and devotion that those around Louise attribute to her.

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