Professor Mary Jane Whitney
March 23, 2001
Female Identity in Kate Chopin's
"The Story of an Hour"
In the nineteenth century males were clearly dominant and authoritarian, while females were subservient and passive. Slowly, women began to question their assigned role and responded to the battle between the sexes in a variety of new ways—withdrawal, revolt, and action to change society: Significantly, as the hope for a new future merged with revulsion against a contaminated past, and as the vision of a New Woman fused with horror at the traditional woman, much female-authored literature oscillated between extremes of exuberance and despair, between dreams of miraculous victory and nightmares of violent defeat. (Gilbert and Gubar 81) not in “” Such are the characters in the fiction of Kate Chopin, American author of the late nineteenth century. In fact, literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar claim that this oscillation "is perhaps most brilliantly depicted in Kate Chopin's terse, O. Henry-like 'The Story of an Hour'" (81). (signal phrase) When Kate Chopin tried to publish "The Story of an Hour" in 1894, she met with resistance from various magazines, who found the story too radical and feminist for the times. R. W. Gilder, the editor of the popular magazine Century, rejected the story because he felt it was immoral. Gilder's opposition to Chopin's tale of a woman freed by her husband's apparent death is not surprising, since Gilder "had zealously guarded the feminine ideal of self-denying love, and was that very summer publishing editorials against women's suffrage as a threat to family and home" (Ewell 89). To understand the radical nature of Chopin's message, readers must recognize the traditional Victorian society in which Chopin lived, a Robinson -2
society in which gender roles were very traditionally defined. In the character of Louise Mallard, the author creates a woman who through the death of her husband comes to the profound realization of a new life and a self that she didn't know existed. But ironically, Chopin also shows Louise's feeling of independence to be a doomed fantasy, because in actuality such a vision of freedom outside of marriage was an unrealistic goal for nineteenth-century women. Through this narrative Chopin sets forth the universal theme of the importance of a women's individual identity outside of marriage, outside of her role as a man's wife. thesis Chopin portrays Louise Mallard as a typical nineteenth-century wife—fragile, feminine, and dependent—who changes into a self-assured, independent individual when she mistakenly thinks she is freed by her husband's death. One of Chopin's subtle techniques for this portrayal is the way she names the protagonist. Early in the story, the character is known as "Mrs. Mallard," a title that defines her as Brently's wife rather than her own person. Only after Mrs. Mallard realizes her freedom is she addressed as "Louise" by her sister Josephine. Critic Mary Papke notes that the reader comes to learn the difference between her "social self—Mrs. Mallard—and private female self—Louise" (74). Through the difference in how the heroine is addressed, Chopin clearly indicates Louise's awakening female identity. She has claimed an identity and a life for herself, a life beyond the confines of marriage. All critical evidence so far
Another effective technique Chopin uses to depict Mrs. Mallard/Louise is physical description. At the beginning of the story, Mrs. Mallard is very much the traditional Victorian ideal of a fragile, feminine being. The author describes her as a delicate creature who is likely to fall ill at any moment. For example, Josephine and Richard take great care to "break [the news of Mallard's death] to her as gently as possible" because she is believed to have "a heart trouble" (Chopin 311). < textual evidence) Another description of Mrs. Mallard's fragility occurs when, after she locks herself in her room and exposes herself to the cold air from the open window, Josephine begs her to "open the door—you will make yourself ill" (312). Author name not mentioned in the citation because it has been mentioned before in the paragraph. Other physical details portray her as passive. She sits with a "dull stare" (312) and "a suspension of intelligent thought" (312). In a particularly telling passage, Chopin describes Mrs. Mallard as "young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines [bespeak] repression and even a certain strength" (312). This description suggests that she doesn't express her own desires and instead follows the role prescribed for her by her society—that of the stoic, silent wife. While Chopin's early physical description of Mrs. Mallard conforms to traditional notions of the "weaker sex," the author gradually provides glimpses of Mrs. Mallard's newfound identity as she emerges from her shell and directly challenges the prevailing notions of Robinson -3 female identity. Chopin provides physical details to indicate that a change has occurred in Louise and she is no longer passive or frightened:
The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body. (312) mistake: should be in quotation She is fully alive and at ease for the first time in her life because she is free, and she is "drinking in a very elixir of life" (312). There is "a feverish triumph" in her eyes (313). As she descends the stairs at the ironic ending, she carries herself like a "goddess of Victory" (313), suggesting that at that moment she feels triumphant in her battle for self. The major evidence of the change in Louise Mallard is in her actions and thoughts. Through the shock of her grief Louise Mallard experiences an awakening of her self and ultimately rejoices in her newfound female identity. Immediately after she hears of her husband's death, she experiences a "storm of grief" (311), weeping "at once, with sudden wild abandonment" (311). Then she enters the first stage of self-discovery by locking herself in her room alone. This act is her first moment of stubborn self-assertion, as "she would have no one follow her" (311). But at this stage, she has not quite found her independent self. She seems suspended, sitting "quite motionless" except when a sob racks her, as a "child who has cried itself to sleep continues to sob in its dreams" (312). When she starts to feel some "thing" or strange feeling, something "too subtle and elusive to name," coming over her (312), she waits for it "fearfully" (312). She tries to "beat it back with her will" but finds herself "as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been" (312). Her response to this newly discovered emotion is like that of a child who is willful but has no power. According to literary critic Peggy Skaggs, her bewilderment and confusion over her emotions are typical of Chopin's female characters, who often "seem to lack a clear concept of their own roles and purpose in life, a constant groping for such self-knowledge shaping their personalities and actions" (312). By allowing these feelings merely to wash over her, Mrs. Mallard indicates that she is still playing the passive role of Brently's wife. As these conflicting emotions overtake her, however, Mrs. Mallard realizes the power that she now holds because of her husband's death. This "thing that was approaching to possess her" (312) turns out to be a joyous realization that she is free from her husband. Over and over again, she says the words "Free, free, free!" and feels a "monstrous joy" (312) that she can live the rest of her life for herself. She Robinson -4
imagines the years "that would belong to her absolutely" (312). Through Louise's realization, Chopin offers a commentary about the effect of marriage and love on a Victorian woman's sense of self. First, she suggests that marriage can kill love. The reader learns that Louise has loved her husband only "sometimes" because he has often imposed his "private will" on her (312). Even though she knows that Brently loved her, she realizes that his kind intentions were nonetheless cruel because they restricted her independence and identity. She realizes that love is not as strong a need as is "self-assertion, which she suddenly [recognizes] as the strongest impulse of her being" (312). Literary critic Barbara Ewell writes of the recurrence of this theme in Chopin's work: "as Chopin often insists, love is not a substitute for selfhood; indeed, selfhood is love's pre-condition" (89). Louise couldn't really love her husband because she didn't have a sense of her own identity; she didn't know herself. Chopin seems to be saying that by squelching individual identity, especially in women, marriage can squelch love. Love can flourish only if both partners are free. This idea was quite radical at the turn of the century. Even further, Chopin suggests that freedom is a natural thing that the social institution of marriage upsets. When Louise is having her moment of revelation in her room, she communes with nature, the blue sky and "the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life" (311). Her sister Josephine wants her to shut the window, but Louise refuses because she is "drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window" (312). Women at this time were usually confined to a domestic role, but Louise wants a different role. The open window and the natural images are symbolic of her desire to be free. As Ewell notes, Chopin's story suggests that freedom is a "human right—as natural as generation, spring, or even death" (90). Through the ironic end of Louise's short-lived vision of freedom, Chopin suggests that freedom as an individual, freedom outside of marriage, is unfortunately unrealistic for a nineteenth-century woman. When she sees her husband alive, Louise dies of a heart attack, an attack the doctor calls "joy that kills" (313). The irony of the ending is that she is not overjoyed at finding her husband alive; rather, the "monstrous joy" she has felt at experiencing her own freedom is actually the source of her death. Now that she has found herself, she can't go back to the inequality of marriage, and the only way out is death. Mary Papke argues that the conclusion of the story both "informs and warns" that if an individual changes but the world around her remains constant, then self-oblivion and death may result for a woman who dares to be different (76). Louise's family and friends, however, misinterpret the cause of her death, implying that Victorian society cannot comprehend the joy of a woman outside the confines of marriage+. In fact, Chopin's readers at the time the story was first published may not have understood the irony of the ending. Elizabeth Robinson -5 McMahan notes that "women in [Chopin's] day did not seek self-determination, did not question whether they had any identity outside of marriage" (34). The tragic ending of "The Story of an Hour" underscores the irony that only through her husband's death, and therefore the death of her marriage, can Louise see the possibilities in life for herself. When she realizes he is alive, she can be free only in death. As Emily Toth suggests, "The Story of an Hour" is "a criticism of the ideal of self-sacrifice that still haunted women at the end of the century" (252). Chopin's fable of female self-assertion and identity was misunderstood and criticized in her time, but modern readers can find important messages in her story. In a sense, Louise Mallard died because her society could not accept that a married woman could have a self outside of her role as wife. A similar situation brought tragedy to many women in the nineteenth century, and "The Story of an Hour" still carries an important warning for women today: find yourself before you marry.