Lawrence L. Berkove (essay date winter 2000)
SOURCE: Berkove, Lawrence L. “Fatal Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin's ‘The Story of an Hour.’” American Literary Realism 32, no. 2 (winter 2000): 152-58.
[In the following essay, Berkove contends that Chopin's narration of “The Story of an Hour” is ironic rather than straightforward.]
Kate Chopin's thousand-word short story, “The Story of an Hour,” has understandably become a favorite selection for collections of short stories as well as for anthologies of American literature. Few other stories say so much in so few words. There has been, moreover, virtual critical agreement on what the story says: its heroine dies, ironically and tragically, just as she has been freed from a constricting marriage and has realized self-assertion as the deepest element of her being. Confidence in this interpretation, however, may be misplaced, for using the standard proposed for the story by Toth and Seyersted—“every detail contributes to the emotional impact”1—there is evidence of a deeper level of irony in the story which does not regard Louise Mallard as a heroine but as an immature egotist and a victim of her own extreme self-assertion. This self-assertion is achieved not by reflection but, on the contrary, by “a suspension of intelligent thought” masked as “illumination.” As a result, a pattern of basic contradictions and abnormal attitudes emerges which gives structure to the story and forecasts its conclusion. The key to recognizing this deeper, ironic level is to carefully distinguish between the story's narrator, author, and unreliable protagonist.
Seyersted's early biography of Chopin describes the story neutrally as “an extreme example of the theme of self-assertion.”2 More recent interpretation has largely followed a strong, and at times an extreme, feminist bent. Representative of this in both approach and language is Emily Toth's well-known characterization of the story as one of Chopin's “most radical … an attack on marriage, on one person's dominance over another.”3 Toth further elaborates this position in a later article in which she comments that “[a]lthough Louise's death is an occasion for deep irony directed at patriarchal blindness about women's thoughts, Louise dies in the world of her family where she has always sacrificed for others.”4 Ewell similarly sees in the story's “surfaces” Louise's struggle for selfhood against “society's decree” for female “selflessness, being for others.”5
But in the text of this very short story there is no hard evidence whatsoever of patriarchal blindness or suppression, constant or selfless sacrifice by Louise, or an ongoing struggle for selfhood. These positions are all read into the story from non-textual assumptions.6 The simple truth is that this story is not about society or marriage, but about Louise Mallard. The single possible reference in the text to difficulties in her life is a sentence, which says that the lines of her face “bespoke repression and a certain strength.”7 It is not at all clear, however, what the cause of that “repression” was; whether, for instance, it might have been external, in society or in her marriage, or whether it was internal, a recognition that it takes strength to control one's feelings or whims. Such few hints as the story supplies incline toward the latter position. While the text enables us to make certain inferences about Louise, it does not supply us with any information about the truth of her life except her perceptions, and these, as I intend to show, are unreliable and, insofar as they are taken as the statements of the story's omniscient narrator, misleading and contradicted by other textual evidence.
Support for this position is spread throughout the story but the most dramatic elements appear in the following three paragraphs:
There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending her in that blind...
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