In Donald F. Larsson’s entry on Kate Chopin in Critical Survey of Short Fiction, we learn that “consistently … strong-willed, independent heroines … [who] cast a skeptical eye on the institution of marriage” are very characteristic of her stories. In “The Story of an Hour,” we do not so much see as intuit Mrs. Mallard’s skeptical eye. Certainly, we are told of the joy she feels with the freedom she finds in her husband’s death, but we are not specifically told that she is skeptical of marriage in general. Indeed, if we take the last line of the story literally, we would understand that Mrs. Mallard was so enamored of her marriage to her husband that she died from the excitement of knowing he was still alive. Yet, obviously, Chopin is engaging in some heavy handed irony. Mrs. Mallard, the young “repressed” woman who began to look at her widowhood as a rebirth, similar to the “new spring” outside her window, did not die from such excitement. She expired from “a heart problem”— an instantaneous knowledge that her momentary glimpse into a “life she would live for herself,” a “life that might be long,” was not to be.
Some of Chopin’s short stories were rejected for publication on moral grounds, for editors perceived in them an unseemly interest in female self-assertion and sexual liberation. Per Seyersted, Chopin’s biographer, writes in his introduction to The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, Volume 1, that the “reason why editors turned down a number of her stories was very likely that her women became more passionate and emancipated.” Given that “The Story of an Hour” was published in 1894, several years after it was written, we can comprehend the importance of moral grounds as a basis for rejection. Marriage was considered a sacred institution. Divorce was quite rare in the 1800s and if one was to occur, men were automatically given legal control of all property and children. Even the constitutional amendments of 1868 and 1870, granting rights of citizenship and voting, gave these rights to African Americans not women. Women were not granted the right to vote in political elections until 1920. Obviously then, a female writer who wrote of women wanting independence would not be received very highly, especially one who wrote of a woman rejoicing in the death of her husband. The fact that she pays for her elation with her life at the end of the story is not enough to redeem either the character or the author.
Although “The Story of an Hour” is brief, Chopin demonstrates her skills as a writer in several ways. Fred Lewis Pattee says in A History of American Literature Since 1870, that the strength of Chopin’s work comes from “what may be described as a native aptitude for narration amounting almost to genius.” Larsson notes her remarkable ability to “convey character and setting simply yet completely.” All of these qualities are evidenced in “The Story of an Hour.”
The story opens with the narrator telling us that Mrs. Mallard has “a heart trouble.” A quick reading of the phrase might mislead the reader into thinking that Mrs. Mallard, therefore, has heart disease. Yet Chopin chose her phrase with care. She wants her readers to know that Mrs. Mallard has a very specific condition that interferes with the workings of her heart. Later, when we see Mrs. Mallard “warmed and relaxed,” we realize that the problem with her heart is that her marriage has not allowed her to “live for herself.”
Another instance of Chopin’s gift of narration enables the reader to understand that what is being told is more than a tale. This illustration involves Mrs. Mallard’s reaction to the news of her husband’s death: “She did not hear the story as many women would have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance.” If a reader had paused at this sentence, he or she might have wondered what there was in the marriage that would keep Mrs. Mallard from becoming prostrate with grief. The reader might have questioned why Mrs. Mallard was not consumed with wondering how she would go on with her life without her husband. Yet, in the very next line we see that she is assuredly grieving as she cries with “wild abandonment.” We find ourselves a bit surprised at this point. Surely a woman in a troubled marriage would not carry on in such a manner. In this instant, Chopin has hinted that a problem exists, but also that Mrs. Mallard is not”paralyzed” by the significance that she is alone. Chopin elaborates upon this when the narrator says that Mrs. Mallard “would have no one follow her.” While the implication is that she would have no one follow her to her room, the reader wonders in hindsight whether Mrs. Mallard might have meant also that she would have no one interfere with her life again.
It is also easy to come to the same conclusion as Larsson does, that the setting is simple but definitely complete. The breaking of the news takes place in an unspecified room within the Mallard’s house. The revelation of freedom occurs in the bedroom, and Mrs. Mallard’s demise occurs on the stairway leading to the front door that her husband opened. Chopin gives us no details about the stairway or the room in which we first meet Mrs. Mallard. Although news of death and death itself occur in these areas and are certainly among a few of life’s most tragic and momentous events, the setting could be anywhere. Conversely, we are inundated, or overwhelmed, with details in the bedroom where Mrs. Mallard becomes her own person. We see the “comfortable, roomy armchair” in which she sits with “her head thrown back upon the cushion.” We see the “tops of trees … aquiver with new spring life” that we can hear and smell from her window.
Some critics argue that Chopin wisely tempers the emotional elements inherent in Mrs. Mallard’s situation. Although the emotion in Mrs. Mallard’s bedroom is indisputable, the “suspension of intelligent thought” removes from the reader the need to share in the widow’s grief and instead allows him or her to remain an onlooker, as eager as Mrs. Mallard to see “what was approaching to possess her.” Other critics credit Chopin’s readings of Charles Darwin and other scientists who prescribed to the “survival of the fittest” theory as the impetus, or driving force, behind her questioning of contemporary mores and the constraints placed upon women. In “The Story of an Hour” Chopin implicitly questions the institution of marriage, perhaps as a by-product or her scientific questioning of mores, but she does so in a cleverly tempered way.
Chopin, fatherless at four, was certainly a product of her Creole heritage, and was strongly influenced by her mother and her maternal grandmother. Perhaps it is because she grew up in a female-dominated environment that she was not a stereotypical product of her times and so could not conform to socially acceptable themes in her writing. Chopin even went so far as to assume the managerial role of her husband’s business after he died in 1883. This behavior, in addition to her fascination with scientific principles, her upbringing, and her penchant for feminist characters would seem to indicate that individuality, freedom, and joy were as important to Chopin as they are to the characters in her stories.
Yet it appears to be as difficult for critics to agree on Chopin’s view of her own life as it is for them to accept the heroines of her stories. Per Seyersted believes that Chopin enjoyed “living alone as an independent writer,” but other critics have argued that Chopin was happily married and bore little resemblance to the characters in her stories. Perhaps Larsson’s analysis of Chopin in Critical Survey of Short Fiction best sums up the importance of Chopin to present-day readers. He writes: “Her concern with women’s place in society and in marriage, her refusal to mix guilt with sexuality, and her narrative stance of sympathetic detachment make her as relevant to modern readers as her marked ability to convey character and setting.” It can be inspiring to know that more than a century ago, women were not necessarily so different from what they are today. Certainly, woman have experienced and benefited from many newer technologies and changing attitudes, but, for a woman, finding her way in life can still present temporary difficulties. Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” illustrates many of these issues.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Kate Chopin, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Jennifer Hicks, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.