The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin
In The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin we have the theme of freedom, independence, marriage and identity. Set in the 1890s the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after first reading the story the reader realises that Chopin is using a lot of symbolism. Though Mrs Mallard has a heart condition (weak heart) it is possible that Chopin is also using this condition as symbolism for Mrs Mallard’s marriage. Typically the heart is used to symbolise love and at no stage in the story does the reader sense that Mrs Mallard is actually in love (or happy) in her marriage to her husband, Brently. Though the reader does not doubt that Mrs Mallard’s grief is genuine, it is interesting that Chopin tells the reader that Mrs Mallard ‘she had loved him – sometimes. Often she had not.’ This line is significant as it can suggest that just as Mrs Mallard has a weak heart, it is possible that there is a weakness or lack of love within Mrs Mallard’s marriage too.
It is also possible that Chopin is suggesting (in the story) that Mrs Mallard has felt trapped in her marriage. This idea of being trapped is noticeable after Mrs Mallard finds out her husband is dead and the narrator tells the reader that ‘there would be no powerful will bending hers.’ This would explain Mrs Mallard’s feelings of joy after her initial grief on hearing that her husband (as far as she is aware) has died. It may also be that by writing the story when she did (1894), Chopin is holding a mirror up to society to highlight the fact that a lot of women felt trapped inside their marriages, as if they, by getting married, had lost their identity and freedom.
The idea of a new found independence for Mrs Mallard is also noticeable (symbolically) while she is upstairs sitting in the room crying. Chopin tells the reader that Mrs Mallard could see ‘the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring of life.’ This line may be important as usually spring would be associated with a new beginning. It is quite possible that Chopin is suggesting that Mrs Mallard’s life is to begin again, now that she is no longer tied down to a marriage. The fact that the window is open in the room is also symbolically important as it suggests a new found sense of freedom for Mrs Mallard. She can hear the peddler and birds singing outside. Again this is significant as it suggests a new world awaits Mrs Mallard.
One of the most interesting things about the story and something that plays on the theme of identity is the fact that the reader learns (through Josephine), Mrs Mallard’s first name (Louise). Though this may appear to be insignificant it is important as it suggests that Mrs Mallard (symbolically) has taken on a new role in her life after hearing that her husband is dead. No longer is she confined, trapped or restricted inside a marriage (no longer Mrs), rather she is free to express herself now that (she thinks) Brently is dead. Previous to Josephine calling Mrs Mallard by her first name, the reader had, by Chopin using the title Mrs, associated Mrs Mallard with marriage. No longer is this the case, now that the reader is aware of Mrs Mallard’s first name. It is also possible that Chopin is suggesting that women lose their identity or individuality when they get married and are in essence, dominated by the male. By telling the reader Mrs Mallard’s first name Chopin may also be suggesting that a new found independence exists for Mrs Mallard, again she is no longer defined by marriage.
Chopin may also be using the chair that Mrs Mallard sits in (after she hears about her husband’s death) as symbolism for Mrs Mallard’s escape from an oppressive marriage. Chopin describes the chair as a ‘comfortable, roomy armchair.’ This description may be significant as it suggests, at least symbolically that Mrs Mallard now has the room to move around in her life. She is no longer defined by or trapped within what many critics suggest has been an oppressive marriage. It may also be significant that Chopin tells the reader that ‘the delicious breath of rain was in the air.’ It is possible that Chopin is suggesting that after rain, comes sun which in turn would symbolically suggest a new freedom for Mrs Mallard.
The ending of the story may also be significant as it is possible that Chopin is introducing irony into the story. When Mrs Mallard discovers that her husband isn’t dead the reader learns that she dies of a heart attack, Chopin telling the reader that ‘she had died of heart disease – of joy that kills.’ It is more likely that rather than dying from the joy of seeing her husband again, Mrs Mallard has died of shock. A shock that was brought on by the realisation that the new freedom and independence that she had previously felt when she believed her husband was dead, is now no longer within her reach.