The Story of an Hour Themes
The main themes in “The Story of an Hour” are freedom, time, and identity.
- Freedom: Louise is overjoyed by the realization that Brently’s death will render her free to live as she chooses, highlighting the repressive nature of Victorian marriages.
- Time: Time is a matter of perception, and Louise’s hour of imagined freedom comes at the cost of her life.
- Identity: Louise has long been denied a sense of selfhood due to her role as a wife. Brently’s death offers her the chance to explore and claim her own identity.
Last Updated on July 15, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1044
After hearing of Brently’s death, Louise is confronted by the epiphany that she is now a free woman. Though some part of her admits to having loved Brently, she cannot help but be overjoyed by the notion of not having to live for anyone but herself. Brently was everything that a Victorian husband was supposed to be, and he never “looked save with love upon [Louise].” However, Louise has been unhappy for the duration of her marriage, noting that only yesterday she had looked upon the prospect of a long life with horror. The implication is that marriage is an oppressive institution in which people “impose a private will upon a fellow-creature,” something that Louise views as abhorrent. Though her marriage was everything the average Victorian wife could hope for, Louise still felt trapped and restricted by Brently, and his death is a sort of emancipation for her.
Louise’s newfound sense of freedom is echoed by her surroundings, as the world outside of her open window is suffused with new spring life. Louise breathes in an “elixir of life” through the window, anticipating being free of the confines of her marriage. Her visions of the future focus on the outside world—spring and summer days that will be entirely her own. The house seems to represent the confines of her marriage to Brently, and the open window offers a glimpse into a world free from the institutions that have kept her repressed. However, Louise’s emancipation is ultimately only an illusion; even as she descends the stairs like a “goddess of Victory,” her husband blocks her path to the outside world, and Louise dies upon seeing him. With Brently alive, Louise’s chance at living life for herself has ended. Instead, readers are offered the choice to view her sudden death as either the tragic consequence of shock and a bad heart or as Louise’s escape into the only kind of freedom left to her.
The importance of time is foregrounded in the title of the short story, and Louise’s emotional ruminations in the wake of Brently’s supposed death highlight the changeable nature of people. Time rules over Chopin’s characters in subtle and unsubtle ways, beginning with Richards’s decision to rush to the Mallard residence to break the news lest a “less careful, less tender” friend arrive ahead of him. Had Richards stalled longer, Louise may never have learned of the mistaken report, sparing her life but leaving her unaware of her desperate desire for independence.
After Louise retires to her room, time becomes aligned with the creeping realization of what Brently’s death could mean for her future. Whereas her grief at hearing the news was immediate, her sense of relief at the prospect of freedom is gradual, and she begins to see “beyond [the] bitter moment” of Brently’s death into a “long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely.” For Louise, who is described as young, Brently’s death represents only a fleeting “moment” in her life, and she sees the years she still has ahead of her unfolding. Time is subject to perception, and circumstances have allowed Louise to begin appreciating the time she has left in a way that she was never able to before. Prior to his death, Brently controlled what Louise did with her time. Now, it belongs entirely to her.
However, for all the change that the fleeting hour has brought for Louise, those around her remain relatively unchanged. Both Josephine and Richards continue to worry for Louise’s health, unaware that her outlook on life has altered completely. Even less has changed for Brently Mallard, who was nowhere near the site of the train accident and is unaware that he is presumed dead. Over the course of an hour that saw no material change in Louise’s circumstances, her entire life was irrevocably impacted by the mere prospect of freedom. In the end, just as Richards was too early in bringing the news of Brently’s death to Louise, he is also too late in “screening [Brently] from the view of his wife,” and Louise dies. Louise’s newfound dreams for her future were ultimately based on inaccurate information, but she has changed fundamentally as a person, rendering her incompatible with the life that circumstances have forced her back into.
Louise Mallard is depicted as a frail woman with a bad heart, and Richards and Josephine fear that the news of Brently’s death will negatively impact her health. This was not an uncommon attitude toward women in the Victorian era, and Louise’s “white slender hands” suggest that she has led a life of relative ease and comfort. However, though her hands are unblemished, her face has a “certain strength” and essence of “repression,” highlighting the disparity between an easy life and a fulfilled one. Those around Louise treat her with gentleness and regard her as someone who must be prevented from making herself ill with grief, infantilizing her and reinforcing her socially mandated helplessness. However, Josephine and Richards misjudge Louise, mistaking her unhappiness for frailty and her joy for grief. The outside world’s inability to conceive of Louise as an individual necessitates the creation of a deeply repressed interior world that belongs only to her.
It is only once Louise is alone that her thoughts begin to wander and that she realizes the true implications of Brently’s supposed death. She is at first horrified by her reaction to her newfound freedom, believing that her joy is “monstrous” in nature, as it comes at the expense of her husband’s life. However, as the reality of her impending freedom takes root in her psyche, she cannot refrain from envisioning a future that she thought was lost to her. Louise’s life so far has been devoted to others, as her role as a Victorian wife dictated. However, with Brently gone, her life is finally her own, and she can possess the “self-assertion” that she has never before been able to pursue. Marriage and social expectations have prevented Louise from having an identity entirely of her own, but Brently’s death frees her to live out the desires she has kept repressed.