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The Story of an Hour

by Kate Chopin

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Analyze the theme of female suppression in Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” through the feminist lens.

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"Feminist lens" refers to the use of Feminist Critical Theory to examine a text for some of the issues that concerns feminist critics. Some important Feminist issues are:

  • patriarchial authority and dominance
  • patriarchal subjugation of women
  • marginalization (similar to but not the same as minority or colonial marginalization)
  • voicelessness (similar to but not the same as minority or colonial voicelessness)
  • overarching masculine ideology
  • constructions of resolution in literature
  • relationships of power in literature

To examine female suppression through a feminist lens, you might start with idea of the reflexive construct: "When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: 'free, free, free!'" As this quote shows, the narrative is constructed as an introspective examination of a young woman's feelings as she learns that her life has been altered (then the consequences when she learns it has been alteredyet  again, but there ends the reflexive analysis). Relfexivity is shown through the use of reflexive pronouns, "herself," and through the narrator's reports of Mrs. Mallard's introspective self-analysis, "she had loved him--sometimes. Often she had not." In addition to reflexive construction, the narrator displays unmistakable sympathy with and support for Mrs. Mallard when the emotional tone of the narrative soars along with the emotional liberation Mrs. Mallard feels:

... she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!
   "Free! Body and soul free!" she kept whispering.

This is a way to get you started on examining this text through the feminist lens. Much more can be done as you examine the expression of patriarchy in the narrative and its effects on Mrs. Mallard. The intriguing question that is always asked is whether her heart trouble is a symptom of patriarchal dominance or the ultimate victim of patriarchal dominance: Does he cause her heart trouble or only (indirectly) her death?

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The great irony of Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour," of course, is that everyone is worried about Louise Mallard's heart when she learns that her husband has died; but the true heartbreak happens when she sees that he is still alive. This alone is enough to suggest that this story should be read as a commentary on female suppression.

After she hears the news about Brently Mallard being killed in a train crash, Louise explodes with one "storm of grief" and then goes upstairs to be alone; however, she does not spend her time or energy grieving. As she ponders the new life ahead of her, we also learn some things about her life as Mrs. Brently Mallard. 

It takes her some time to realize it, but in her new life she will be "free, free, free!" It is a thought which warms her from the inside, perhaps a "monstrous joy" but wonderful nevertheless. She will weep at her husband's funeral, when she sees his "kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead." He was never a cruel man to her, and yet she was not free.

It is the idea of living for herself that is most appealing to her, as it is something she has never had in her marriage. We know that Mallard loved her, yet he demonstrated that love by making all her decisions for her. She was free, but her free will had been usurped by her husband on their wedding day, something she now understands is a crime, regardless of motive.

There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.

Now she has been released from the shackles of her marriage and is free; the years ahead of her might be lonely, but they "would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome."

Again she wavers, feeling disloyal for not loving him as completely as she might have. She has to admit that she did love Brently sometimes, but at other times she did not. Now that she is free to think for herself, Louise realizes that love is not a substitute for "this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being." The most important thing, at least to someone who has been deprived of it, is the freedom to speak and think and act according to her own will rather than submitting to the will of another. 

This is not something Louise is just now contemplating because her husband has died and she is now free. She does look forward to the future now and prays that her "life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long." With nothing to look forward to, her life had seemed endless and she dreaded the many days she must endure thus. Now, with the death of her husband, her benevolent oppressor, she has a future and hope.

The nature of this marriage is probably not much different than most marriages of this day: the man was the boss and made all the decisions because he knew what was best for everyone. While her earthly (basic) needs were being met, Louise's soul and spirit were starving, hungry for the freedom of self-determination she intuitively knew every person should have, not just men. 

When she realizes Brently is still alive, Louise's heart simply does the inevitable and stops beating. 

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The narrator immediately remarks that Mrs. Mallard had heart trouble and this was why the news of her husband's (alleged) death was broken to her gently. This is logical but it also supposes that Mrs. Mallard is mentally as well as physically weak and/or incapable of dealing with traumatic news in a rational way. On the contrary, after grieving dramatically for a spell, Mrs. Mallard actually becomes stronger. Thus, once thought a weak, dependent woman, Mrs. Mallard had actually found liberation following her husband's death. 

Upon hearing of Brently's death, Mrs. Mallard (Louise) "wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms." After this dramatic grieving, Louise goes to her room alone, sobbing quietly and occasionally in her armchair. About this time, her transformation occurs. (Note the terms "repression" and then "strength.") 

She was young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength. 

Then, realizing that she had been freed from her role as the wife, she began to repeat the word "free." And note that it is clear that she and Brently had a good marriage. So, it was not the case that Louise awakened from an abusive or unloving marriage. It was the case that she had awakened and escaped from the role that she was forced to play as a dutiful wife, often relegated to the home, as was the custom for women in the late 19th century. So, she had been liberated from that role. Now, no longer suppressed, her life belonged to her; rather than to her husband: 

There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. 

An escape from an unloving, abusive marriage would certainly be a liberation. However, looking at this story through a feminist lens, Louise's escape is a liberation as well because she is no longer tethered to the will of her husband and no longer forced into that wifely role which carries much less freedom than the role of the husband does. Louise's liberation is also a realization for her; she realizes that up to that point, she had been a prisoner of sorts, albeit it in a comfortable marriage. Now with her husband gone, she feels truly free: "she was drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window." The shock at seeing Brently is described by the doctors as a "joy that kills" but it might certainly have been the loss of joy that killed since her new found freedom was taken from her at this moment when she was fully realizing it. 

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