Identity and Selfhood
Kate Chopin deals with the issues of female self-discovery and identity in “The Story of an Hour.” After Mrs. Mallard learns of her husband’s death, she is initially overcome with grief. But quickly she begins to feel a previously unknown sense of freedom and relief. At first, she is frightened of her own awakening: “There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully.” Her own feelings come upon her, possessing her. When she first utters the words “free, free, free!” she is described as having “abandoned herself.” But after she speaks these words, she relaxes and gains more control over herself. As she imagines life without her husband, she embraces visions of the future. She realizes that whether or not she had loved him was less important than “this possession of self-assertion” she now feels. The happiness Louise gains by this recognition of selfhood is so strong that, when she realizes that her husband is in fact alive, she immediately collapses. Chopin suggests that Louise could not bear to abandon her newfound freedom and return to life with her husband, where she would be required to bend her will to his.
Role of Women in Marriage
Intimately connected with the theme of identity and selfhood is the theme of the role of women in marriage. Mrs. Mallard is known in the beginning of the story only as a wife; very little is revealed concerning Mr. and Mrs. Mallard’s relationship. Even Louise is unsure whether or not they had been happily married: “And yet she had loved him— sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter!” Thus, the specifics of the relationship matter less than the conventions of marriage in general. Louise is ecstatic when she realizes that”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.” Whether one is acting out of love or not, Chopin seems to be making a comment on nineteenth-century marriages, which granted one person—the man—right to own and dominate another—the woman. This theme, unpopular in an era when women were not even allowed to vote, is examined in many of Chopin’s other works, most notably The Awakening.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Kate Chopin, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.