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The Story of an Hour

by Kate Chopin

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The meaning of "the joy that kills" in "The Story of an Hour."

Summary:

The phrase "the joy that kills" in "The Story of an Hour" refers to the shock Louise Mallard experiences upon learning that her husband is actually alive. Initially, she feels liberated by the news of his death, envisioning a life of freedom. However, the sudden reversal of this newfound independence overwhelms her, leading to her fatal heart attack.

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In "The Story of an Hour," what is "the joy that kills"?

The "joy that kills" is Louise Mallard's ruined dream of experiencing a free life the moment she discovers that Brently is alive. When Louise Mallard learns that her domineering husband, Brently Mallard, has tragically died in a railroad accident, she is initially overcome with grief and goes upstairs to compose herself. Once Louise is alone in her room, she begins to think about her future as a widow and realizes that she will be completely free and independent. Louise recognizes that she will have the rest of her life to do as she pleases and will no longer live under her husband's forceful hand. As an independent widow, Louise can experience life without any restrictions and is free from her oppressive marital obligations.

Louise's feelings towards her husband's death change when she sees the silver lining of the tragedy. Chopin writes that Louise is "drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window" and that she "breathed a quick prayer that life might be long" before she leaves the room. Once Louise walks down the steps, she discovers that her husband is alive and suddenly dies of a heart attack. Although the doctors assert that Louise died of a "joy that kills," the reader recognizes that Louise's heart broke the moment she realized that her hopeful, independent future was destroyed. Therefore, the "joy that kills" is Louise Mallard's ruined dream of being free and living for herself.

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In "The Story of an Hour," what is "the joy that kills"?

In Kate Chopin's celebrated short story "The Story of an Hour," Louise Mallard receives the tragic news of her husband's sudden death in a railroad accident and she immediately begins to weep with "wild abandonment." When Louise retires to her upstairs room, she recognizes the beautiful spring weather and begins to contemplate her future as a widow. As Louise thinks about her future, she experiences an epiphany and is overwhelmed with the possibility of hope, freedom, and joy. Louise recognizes that she will no longer experience an oppressed, stifled life, where she is forced to bend to the will of her husband and live up to society's expectations. While Louise sits in her chair, she cannot contain her excitement and repeatedly says, "Free! Body and soul free!"

As Louise descends the stairs with a feeling of renewal and hope, her husband enters the house and she dies from a heart attack. The doctors attribute Louise's heart attack to a "joy that kills." They misinterpret Louise's feelings and believe that her joy stemmed from Brently being alive. Ironically, Louise's joy stems from Brently's death, which leads to her brief moment of liberation and the heart-warming realization that she will have an independent, autonomous future. Brently's arrival completely shatters Louise's future and the terror of losing her newfound freedom caused her heart attack. Therefore, the joy that kills is actually the exciting feeling of being an independent widow, which is suddenly taken from Louise when she discovers that her husband is still alive.

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In "The Story of an Hour," what is "the joy that kills"?

At the end of "The Story of an Hour," Louise Mallard discovers that her husband is, in fact, alive, and the feelings of freedom she had been discovering were in service of nothing. She is described at the beginning as having "heart trouble," and the shock of this discovery is what kills her; however, the interpretation of the actual shock may differ:

[Her husband] had been far from the scene of the accident, and did not even know there had been one. He stood amazed at Josephine's piercing cry; at Richards' quick motion to screen him from the view of his wife.

When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease -- of the joy that kills.
(Chopin, "The Story of an Hour," vcu.edu)

The doctors interpret her heart failure as one of "joy," the idea being  that the strain of sudden grief and then sudden relief was simply too much for her heart. In this scenario, the joy of seeing her husband alive stopped her heart because of her weakened state.

The usual objective interpretation is that her real "joy" was taken away from her by her husband's appearance. During the hour that she thought him dead, she began to discover the possibilities of personal freedom, and of living life without her husband -- who is not a bad person -- shadowing her every move. In this interpretation, "the joy that kills" is her realization that she is not free, might never be free, and so her brief moment of true freedom and joy has been stolen from her. With her heart trouble, the powerful disappointment -- as well as the legitimate shock -- of discovering her husband alive is enough to cause heart failure.

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In "The Story of an Hour," what is "the joy that kills"?

Chopin is being ironic here.  The reader knows that Louise Mallard is actually feeling liberated by the news of her husband's passing; however, the other characters in the short story have no idea.  Her actions in that hour are considered to be ones filled with grief, not ecstasy.  Therefore, when Louise finds out that her husband is alive and well, she is so shocked (or perhaps heart broken) that she dies.  Because no one knows her true feelings, they assume that Louise has died because she is so shocked and overjoyed that her husband is actually alive.

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In "The Story of an Hour," what is "the joy that kills"?

At the end of the story, Louise Mallard discovers that her husband, Brently, is alive and suddenly dies of a heart attack. The examining doctor states that Louise Mallard died of "heart disease—of joy that kills." The doctor presumes that Louise Mallard was overwhelmed with joy when she discovered that Brently was still alive, which could not be further from the truth. Chopin utilizes both dramatic irony and situational irony when Louise Mallard discovers the shocking news and suddenly dies of a heart attack.

Before Brently enters the house, Mrs. Mallard experiences overwhelming joy when she realizes that she will finally have the opportunity to live a free, independent life without the oppressive influence of her husband. She looks forward to her life without Brently and relishes the moment after she discovers that he is dead.

Ironically, Mrs. Mallard dies from terror and heartbreak when she discovers that Brently is alive and her dreams of living an independent life are shattered. Therefore, Mrs. Mallard does not die of the "joy that kills" but dies as a result of the horrible realization that she will never experience autonomy or exercise independence. Overall, the "joy that kills" is the doctor's conclusion as to why Mrs. Mallard dies, which is completely wrong. The audience knows that Mrs. Mallard died of terror and the horrible realization that she will continue to suffer under her husband's oppressive authority for the remainder of her life.

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In "The Story of an Hour," what is "the joy that kills"?

At the end of this story, Louise Mallard dies of "heart disease -- the joy that kills," according to her doctors.  However, after reading the story, readers can ascertain Chopin's irony: Louise did not die of joy, she died of the terrible shock of seeing her husband alive when she'd believed him to be dead. 

When she'd learned of her husband's death in a train accident, she repeated the word, "'free, free, free,'" again and again,"'Free!  Body and soul free!'"  She did not rejoice in the death of a man who "never looked save with love upon her"; rather, she rejoices that his death would supply to her "a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely."  She anticipates the independence she would possess as a widow, one who would not have to bend her will to meet anyone else's.  The narrator describes her as feeling a "monstrous joy," likely because it comes at the cost of her loving husband's life but provides her with a freedom that makes her pray "that life might be long" when it "was only yesterday that she had thought with a shudder that life might be long." 

Therefore, when her husband, Brently Mallard, opens the front door and steps through, just as Louise descends the stars, "carr[ying] herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory," her husband's friend tries to shield Brently from Louise's sight.  When she collapses, doctors believe it to be connected to her apparent "heart trouble"; however, though "Her pulses beat fast" when she first learned the news, instead of weakening her, "the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body."  In fact, the narrator's claim that the lines on her face "bespoke repression and even a certain strength" seems to indicate that she had been weakened by "repression," a social ailment, rather than any physical one.  Thus, it is not a joy upon finding Brently to be alive that kills her, it is the revocation of the "monstrous joy" she felt when she thought him to be dead.

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In "The Story of an Hour," what is "the joy that kills"?

In Kate Chopin's celebrated short story "The Story of an Hour," the protagonist, Louise Mallard, suffers from a heart ailment and receives the devastating news that her husband, Brently, died in a railroad accident. Initially, Louise Mallard responds by weeping with sudden, "wild abandonment" into her sister's arms before she retreats to her upstairs room. After locking herself in her room, Louise Mallard stares through an open window and admires the pleasant springtime atmosphere as she begins to reflect upon her future. Louise suddenly recognizes that she will finally be able to experience complete independence for the rest of her life without suffering from Brently's oppressive authority.

Louise also realizes that she will not have to conform to society's strict expectations as an obedient, submissive wife, which fills her with overwhelming ecstasy and joy. Simply thinking about her future as an independent woman inspires Louise to repeat the phrase "free, free, free!" (Chopin, 2). As she stares out the window, Louise embraces the idea of finally living for herself with no obligation to please anyone else. While Louise is reflecting on the limitless possibilities and opportunities of her upcoming years, her sister Josephine begins knocking at the door. Josephine is under the impression that Louise is overcome with grief and worries that she will make herself ill.

When Louise finally leaves the room and begins walking down the stairs, Brently Mallard enters the house, which startles Louise, who ends up dying of a heart attack. Ironically, the doctors determine that she died of "the joy that kills." They are under the impression that Louise was overcome with joy when she learned that Brently was alive, which is why her heart suddenly stopped working. However, the reader recognizes that Louise experienced the absolute horror of discovering that her dream of independence was shattered the moment she saw Brently. Ironically, Brently's survival does not cause Louise joy and has the opposite effect when she recognizes that her future is ruined.

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In "The Story of an Hour," what is "the joy that kills"?

Kate Chopin’s short story “The Story of an Hour” ends with Mrs. Mallard collapsing upon seeing her husband Brently alive after thinking he was killed in a train accident. She suffered a heart condition. Doctors believed that the elation and shock of discovering her husband alive were too great for her heart to bear—that she died “of the joy that kills.” Their claim, however, demonstrates dramatic irony; they, like other characters in the story, believe that Mrs. Mallard was overjoyed at seeing her husband, when the reader knows that she was overjoyed at the release of widowhood and that Brently’s return is a crushing end to her brief fantasy of freedom.

“The Story of an Hour” takes place during the late nineteenth century in the home of a woman of high social status. Mrs. Mallard lives in a two-story house near an open square; it has separate rooms for her to retreat to after her sister Josephine and Brently’s friend Richards gently tell her what they think is bad news. Brently evidently holds a white-collar job, perhaps in business or journalism, that requires him to travel with a suitcase or “grip-sack.” Therefore, a woman of Mrs. Mallard’s stature is expected to be content—living comfortably and safely ensconced in loving marriage.

Upon hearing that her husband may have died, Mrs. Mallard

did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms.

Initially and to others, Mrs. Mallard appears to be wild with grief. Ironically, however, her “wild abandonment” actually results from her exaltation over her new autonomy. She “wept” for joy. The desire for a place outside of traditional marriage is unacceptable to a woman of her time and place. In fact, Mrs. Mallard even fears these unfamiliar sensations of release and liberty; at first these feelings were “approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat [them] back with her will.” When she does allow herself to accept them, her eyes lose their “look of terror” and her heart beats quickly to pump blood through her body like an athlete with adrenaline and determination. Mrs. Mallard comes alive and softly chants “free, free, free!” She feels “monstrous joy” and is not “ill,” as her sister thinks, but drinks “in a very elixir of life.”

Instead of being a dismal, dead-end prison as viewed by the public, widowhood for Mrs. Mallard will be liberation from patriarchal rule:

There would be no one to live for 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.

This passage implies that in private, behind closed doors, Mrs. Mallard has to live according to Brently’s wishes; her will has to bend to his will. According to social mores, her place as a wife is to “live for” her husband and serve his needs and wishes. Instead of staring into future years of what society views as pitiable loneliness, however, she joyfully imagines “all sorts of days that would be her own.” While unhappy and repressed in her traditional marriage, she “had thought with a shudder that life might be long;” now, however, she wishes for many years to savor her freedom and autonomy as a widow.

Mrs. Mallard concedes that she would feel sad seeing Brently's “kind, tender hands folded in death.” He obviously loves Mrs. Mallard; she knows that he gazed at her with only love with a “face that had never looked save with love upon her.” She admits that “she had loved him—sometimes. Often she had not.” Yet the doctors mistakenly attribute her fatal breakdown to her joy at seeing her supposedly beloved husband.

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In "The Story of an Hour," what is "the joy that kills"?

I want to clarify a bit with this question and answer. The doctors don't initially say that Mrs. Mallard died of a joy that kills. The doctors state that Mrs. Mallard died of heart disease. The first sentence of the story indicates that Mrs. Mallard's heart condition is well known, and that is why news of her husband's death had to be given to Mrs. Mallard very gently. Presumably, Mrs. Mallard's heart condition makes it so that emotional shifts are hard on her heart. That might seem odd, but heart rates change for all kinds of reasons. For example, stress and stressful situations will cause hormones to be released that speed up the heart rate and increase blood pressure. A heart that is already weak will be additionally stressed in this situation.

The doctors follow up the heart disease cause of death with the ironic part about Mrs. Mallard being so overjoyed that Brently is alive that her heart simply couldn't take it, and she died. The doctors assume, like everybody else, that Mrs. Mallard is perfectly content in her marriage. They believe that Brently's death is incredibly difficult for Mrs. Mallard to wrap her mind around, and they assume that his surprised arrival fills her with immense joy. Her happiness was so great that it stressed the heart to the breaking point, and the doctors figured she died in a moment of extreme happiness.

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What is your academic thesis on the "joy that kills" in "The Story of an Hour"?

I would like to add a comment to the thorough response above.  Most of us who read "The Story of an Hour" believe, on the basis of the story's narrative, that Mrs. Mallard's marriage is particularly unsuccessful and, in a sense, that is correct.  After all, Louise Mallard, in commenting on her love of Brently Mallard, notes that "and yet she had loved him--sometimes," not exactly a glowing recommendation for marital bliss.  And earlier, Mrs. Mallard imagines how she would react when she sees her husband in his casket--"she knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death," implying that Brently Mallard was a kind, gentle, and loving husband.  These two scenes seem to create some uncertainty about Mrs. Mallard's real problem with marriage--until we get to the explanation.

A few lines later we discover that Mrs. Mallard does not differentiate between her marriage, which might be characterized as a loving one, and the institution of marriagein which there are literally no good marriages:

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.

To Mrs. Mallard, then, even though she might be married to a good and loving husband, the pair are yoked in an institution, marriage, that requires them to impose their "private will" on one another, and that imposition creates the lack of freedom that has recently become so appealing to Mrs. Mallard when she realizes she has been freed of the marriage bonds by the accident of her husband's death.

In sum, then, the story is not about a single unsuccessful marriage; rather, Chopin makes a much broader comment about how marriage restricts freedom, and it doesn't matter whether the marriage is "good" because, in the end, marriage creates bonds that are more like shackles than anything else.

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What is your academic thesis on the "joy that kills" in "The Story of an Hour"?

Let's begin by defining the terms symbol and foreshadowing.  A symbol is something that stands for something else.  Foreshadowing is a moment in a story that can show you, the reader, that something will happen later.  Let's discuss the two important literary elements in turn.

First, one must consider the name "Mallard" as a symbol.  A mallard duck can freely migrate.  Loise Mallard, above all, values freedom as exemplified and symbolized in nature.  Even the "open square" of sky she can see from her window and other birds "twittering" can be seen as symbols of freedom that she longs for.

Second, nature is a more general symbol.  Look at Chopin's description when Louise first hears about her husband's death:

When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone.

It is no mistake that a storm is used here to represent her avid grief. However, as Louise contemplates "her grief" more and more, you can hear the call of freedom in nature.

Trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air ... and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves. ... There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds.

Here, nature symbolizes new life and a new beginning.  It is a new beginning only possible because of the death of her husband.  Later, nature (this time in regards to the seasons) is again used to symbolize her coming freedom:  "Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own."

Third, we have to speak about the stairs. Where nature represents new life, the stairs symbolize Louise's transformation TO new life.  As she goes up the stairs, it is to isolate herself in grief.  As she goes down the stairs, it is to descend as a free woman:

There was a feverish triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory. She clasped her sister's waist, and together they descended the stairs.

The only issue is that, "Richard stood waiting for them at the bottom."

Now, we need to talk a bit about foreshadowing.  In my opinion, the biggest piece of foreshadowing that Louise will die from "the joy that kills" is that from the beginning of the story we are told that Louise has "heart trouble."  This may seem insignificant, but it is precisely the thing that causes her death. 

There is quite a bit of foreshadowing also about Mrs. Mallard being not so happy in her marriage and that she just might be happy that her husband has passed away.  For example, Chopin talks about her pretty face "whose lines bespoke repression."

Suddenly the weather that is a symbol from above can also foreshadow her new elation at her freedom.  (See the large block quote above.)  She has not formally stated her freedom at this point, but the nature screams her elation.

Thus, both symbol and foreshadowing can be found in Chopin's work of literature.

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