The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin: An American Woman's Dramatic Hour of Awakening

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In "The Story of an Hour" (1894), Kate Chopin focuses on a late nineteenth-century American woman's dramatic hour of awakening into selfhood, which enables her to live the last moments of her life with an acute consciousness of life's immeasurable beauty. Mrs. Mallard, who suffers from a weak heart, seems to live a psychologically torpid and anemic life until she hears the news of her husband's death. This news comes from her husband's friend, who says that Brently Mallard has died in a railroad accident. Mrs. Mallard's sister. Josephine, mindful of Mrs. Mallard's heart condition, breaks the news to her "in broken sentences" and "veiled hints" (193). But when Mrs. Mallard hears the shocking news, she undergoes a profound transformation that empowers her with a "clear and exalted perception" (194). As Chopin demonstrates, this heightened consciousness comes to the protagonist because of her awakened emotions. Revealing her own dynamic and avant-garde understanding, Chopin rejects the tradition of attributing supremacy to the faculty of reason in the act of perception, and she attributes it instead to the faculty of emotions.

When she hears the news of her husband's death, Mrs. Mallard's obliviousness to the beauty of life breaks down under the powerful impact of emotion. Until this moment, Mrs. Mallard hardly thinks it worthwhile to continue her existence; as the narrator of the story says, "It was only yesterday [Mrs. Mallard] had thought with a shudder that life might be long" (194). Her life until this point seems devoid of emotion, as the lines in her face "besp[ea]k repression" (193). Upon hearing the news, her sorrow gushes out in a torrent: "She wept at once with sudden, wild abandonment" (193). The narrator points out, however, that Mrs. Mallard is not struck, as "many women" have been, by "a paralyzed inability" to accept the painful sense of loss (193). On the contrary, she is roused from her passivity by an uncontrollable flood of emotion. This "storm" that "haunt[s] her body and seem[s] to reach into her soul" (193) ultimately purges her of the sufferance of a meaningless life, as it becomes the impetus for the revelation that leads to her new freedom.

Until her moment of illumination, Mrs. Mallard's emotions have been stifled and suppressed to fit into the mold of hollow social conventions. As Chopin implies. Mrs. Mallard's "heart trouble" (193) is not so much a physical ailment, as the other characters in the story think, as a sign of a woman who has unconsciously surrendered her heart (i.e., her identity as an individual) to the culture of paternalism. This repression has long brewed in the depths of Mrs. Mallard's heart (emotionally speaking), and it causes her to be generally apathetic toward life. The physiological aspect of Mrs. Mallard's heart ailment appears to be, then, a result of the psychological burden of allowing another individual's (i.e., her husband's) "powerful will" to smother and silence her own will (194). In the patriarchal world of the nineteenth-century United States that Chopin depicts, a woman was not expected to engage in self-assertion. As Norma Basch observes of the American legal and economic milieu of the period, the patriarchy of that time ''mandated the complete dependence of wives on husbands," making marriage "a form of slavery" (349, 355). The virtuous wife, in Mrs. Mallard's world, was the submissive woman who accepts the convention that her husband has "a right to impose a private will" upon her--as Mrs. Mallard realizes has been true of her marriage (194). So insistent is this artificial life of empty conventions for Mrs. Mallard that it tries to assert itself even after its barriers are broken, as she sits in her room and begins to comprehend the freedom that awaits her as a widow: "She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will" (194). But the excitement in her heart, which is...
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