The “Hour” of Life

English 101

18 April 2004
The 1890’s were a time of slow progressivism. Women were confined to certain obligations, and few questioned the role of wife and mother. The fairer sex was expected to be just that—humble, obedient, and adoring of her husband. So when Kate Chopin questioned the institution of marriage and the feelings expected to be associated with such a union, many were shocked. In The Story of an Hour, Kate Chopin shatters the illusion that marriage is necessary for happiness. Through Chopin’s imagery, language, and magnificent irony, clearly conveyed is the message that cultural expectations do not guarantee joy.

The opening scene in The Story of an Hour commences with the sad news of Mr. Brently Mallard’s death. Louise Mallard takes the news unlike most widows. Louise weeps at once with “sudden, wild abandonment”. Nevertheless, her sorrow is short-lived. Described as a “storm of grief”, her tears are “spent” within the third paragraph of the story. Afterwards, Mrs. Mallard escapes to her room alone where she rests in her “comfortable, roomy armchair”, and looks through the window at trees “aquiver with new spring life.” The imagery that follows is equally unexpected. A person would assume that the sights of someone recently robbed of a loved one would be tainted with grief, perceived as dismal despite cheery weather. However, Louise is struck by the “delicious breath of rain” in the air, the “patches of blue sky”, and the sparrows “twittering in the eaves.”

Chopin is not as subtle in describing Mrs. Mallard’s feelings of release at the realization that her life was hers now, to live as she wished—as selfishly as she pleased. She directly describes Louise’s abandonment of obligatory mourning. Twice she cries that she is “free!” and is exalted with the relaxing recognition that she has been released to drink in the “elixir of life.” She carries herself like a “goddess of Victory” with “feverish triumph” in her eyes. Mrs. Mallard’s following thoughts hint to a cultural standard rejected by the author:

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. 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.

Chopin takes care to note that Louise did love her husband, but rejoices in the liberty to embrace the “strongest impulse of her being”: self-assertion.

Irony is displayed in Mrs. Mallard’s prayer that her life might be long. “It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.” She “spreads her arms out” to the “long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely.” Ironically, Mrs. Mallard receives life only through her husband’s death. But unfortunately, Brently Mallard is found to be not dead. Upon discovering her husband’s life, Mrs. Mallard is instantly subject to a mortal death, instead of the slow progressive death of self. Unknowingly, the doctors declare her cause of death “joy that kills.”

Furthermore, Brently Mallard’s return is like the grim reaper’s, bringing imprisonment in the chains of wedding bands. Like in all of Chopin’s other writings, we are forced to consider a revolutionary concept and relate to the main character in an original way. With her excellent command of imagery, language, and irony, Chopin, through a short story, is able to communicate to the reader a necessity for individuality. In this “Hour,” Kate Chopin clearly asserts that though marriage may bring joy to some, it should not be a societal expectation.