Published in Vogue in 1894, Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” tells of Louise Mallard’s entrance into and exit from sudden independence. After being told that her husband has passed away, Louise is overwhelmed by a rush of freedom that she has never felt before. Unfortunately, this liberty is wrested from her grasp when she discovers that her husband is alive after all. In an unexpected turn of events, Louise is the one who no longer has the will to go on and immediately dies as her husband walks through the door.
Recently I read this story in one of my English literature classes as part of an exploration of feminist criticism. The brilliance of “The Story of an Hour” lies in its simplicity, conciseness, and ability to surprise the reader in a quick turn of events at the very end. One can’t help but feel for Louise and her surprising plight: she’s been subservient for so long that she doesn’t know how to handle such an abrupt eruption of independence. How quickly her thoughts change as she realizes what she has been suppressing all this time: the desire to live.
“She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.”
Then, just when she begins to come to terms with her new position in life, that very same independence is wrested from her grasp with the return of a looming patriarchal figure. Despite the fact that this story was written at the end of the nineteenth century, it nevertheless remains undeniably relevant today. Personally, I know that I have definitely felt the tension between my own determination to be a strong, independent woman and society’s clashing expectations of how I should act and behave. It’s frustrating and insulting and confusing, but works like “The Story of an Hour” remind us why it’s so important to keep talking about and fighting for gender equality.
While I was heartbroken to witness Louise’s death on the page, part of me can’t help but believe that it had to occur. After all, what would Louise done had she lived? There was no place for single women in society during this time period– at least, no position that could compare in value or comfort to that of a married white woman. Though the death of Louise’s husband granted her emotional and domestic freedom, it simultaneously condemned her to societal captivity. Only in death could she truly become an autonomous woman.
Kate Chopin wrote dozens of stories, but this one is high on my list of favorites. It succinctly captures the stifling feeling that can sometimes accompany being a woman, not to mention demonstrates the frustration of constantly being at odds with one’s position in society. This story is an important text that should be further emphasized both within and beyond discussions of feminist criticism.
Have you ever read this story before? What are your thoughts on other works by Kate Chopin? Any recommendations for stories or books that I should read? Let me know in the comments section below!