Essay Writing/ Semester 1
February 20, 2017
Male Dominance and Female Powerlessness in “The Story of an Hour”
“We are living in a country with equal rights,” was the consensus of some students, that I asked if there is still oppression or unfairness between the sexes. “It’s getting better,” one person added at last. Inequality is a current problem all over the world and it has always been a challenge for the people. Nevertheless, one can surely say that the situation in Germany, for example, is indeed getting better if one have a look back at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1894 the short story “The Story of an Hour” was published in Vogue by Kate Chopin. It is about the thoughts of a woman, afflicted with a heart trouble (1), after she is told that her man died in an accident. In the end it is said that she died of this heart disease (2). The reader, though, knows that the result of the death must be the surprising attendance of her husband. Kate Chopin works with this problem of oppressiveness and inequality in the marriage and furthermore she emphasizes the neglect of women. At that time her short stories became bad critiques because of the fact that she questioned moral standards like the patriarchy, which was common at that point. However, later in the 1960’s she has become famous because of her stories with feminist content (Birkle, 111).
In her story, Kate Chopin, deals with the opposites of dominance and weakness. Especially the powerlessness of Mrs. Mallard, the main character, is described in order to make sure that she lives in a marriage she doesn’t virtually want to be, as we can see when it says: “And yet she had loved him – sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter!” (2). Just at the beginning we are told that Mrs. Mallard “was afflicted with a heart trouble” (1), which introduces the powerlessness of the woman. Especially the word “heart trouble” isn’t that clear as it seems to be. First of all one would think of a physiological problem of an older woman, which can make sense if we consider, that many older people have diseases or injuries. But Chopin wants to conceal for the first time of reading that Mrs. Mallard has also a psychological problem, which is the powerlessness through her marriage as we can see in the same quotation like above “And yet...” (2). Hence the story begins with a symbol of weakness which is the trigger of the irony of her death in the end. One could clearly say that the death is caused by the heart disease. But the people go further than that and say, that she died because of “joy that kills” (2). Through the story the reader knows that this shouldn’t be the reason. When she gets the message that her husband died she seems to be shocked at first: “…with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance” (1). And we can say that it’s a further sign of weakness of Mrs. Mallard, when it says “She wept at once, with sudden” (1). A woman who is crying is what one would expect, if it’s said, that the husband is dead. Later, when she is alone in her room, she “sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body” (1). Also here we can say that the physical exhaustion goes with her inner mind. It is not only her body which makes her feel bad. That she “pressed down” to the armchair is an action, which expresses on the one hand her exhaustion of the body as it is mentioned afterwards but on the other hand also her psychological exhaustion because of the shocking but on the same time liberating moment she feels. Another type of weakness which is expressed in the text is the most obvious one. It’s her death in the end. Up to that point Mrs. Mallard feels happy after knowing that Brently Mallard, her husband, is dead. She recognize that she can live in freedom and live her own live without any oppression of her husband or lack of love although she is married. But with the surprising arrival of her husband she gets to the highest point powerlessness can be expressed: her death. It seems to be that it is the only possibility to feel free. With her death she expresses that she can’t live any longer with her husband in this marriage. It is no “joy that kills” (2) but the shock of having the same life as before.
Despite the conflict between male dominance and female powerlessness, Chopin shows in the center of her short story that the woman can be strong if the conditions are human and right. The reader can see a change of Mrs. Mallard from the point she might know that Brently seems to be dead. From the weak oppressed woman she turns into a confident person. In this situation she feels comfortable. That she goes alone into a room after the message shows that she begins to go her own way without the help of anybody else: “She would have no one follow her” (1). Nature is a symbol, which Chopin uses to underline the freedom Mrs. Mallard can feel now. But not only freedom is expressed by describing the view through the open window.
“She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.” (1)
It might look for the first time as an exaggerating description of the nature. But it isn’t at all. The nature symbols the power Mrs. Mallard gains. “Open”, and “new spring life” represent the life she can now have without her man and without pressure. Also music is involved in Chopin’s description. Hearing a song and twittering sparrows are melodious sounds that one like to hear if somebody is happy. And so turns the old afflicted woman to a powerful lady who discover new possibilities of her time. This also shows that she has suffered from her marriage before. The peak of her happiness is shown through her words like “free, free, free!” (1) very clear. But also when she says “Free! Body and soul free!” (2) we can notice her pleasure. On top of that she combines the physiological and psychological troubles she had up to that point which is a connection to her heart trouble at the beginning. “She was drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window” (2). These are other words of saying that she can enjoy her life now through the free possibilities. Now she even can look back and say that she didn’t want to live longer but with this new power she’s got “she breathed a quick prayer that life might be long” (1).
In addition to the two faces of Mrs. Mallard as strong and confident person but actually powerless woman there remains the dominance of her husband Brently Mallard. In the whole story there are not many passages within he is described directly. It is only through the words and thoughts of Mrs. Mallard that the reader can assume that the marriage can’t be a lovely one. But “The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes” (1) is more than subtle in order to say that her husband wasn’t good to her.
“She knew she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead.” (2)
It seems to be clear that Mrs. Mallard doesn’t feel just for the moment in a complicated situation of her life but has deeper problems with her husband. The clearest sign is also here the death of Mrs. Mallard which expresses her deepest antipathy to her husband.
As we have seen male dominance is the trigger of the situation of the story. Considering the time in which the story is told we can see that it was usual for man having the dominance in a marriage. One of the important morals, who manifest this dominance is the theory of patriarchy. “Patriarchy is thus, by definition, sexist, which means it promotes the belief that women are innately inferior to men” (Tyson, 84). Furthermore it is said “…traditional gender roles dictate that men are supposed to be strong (physically powerful and emotionally stoic), they are not supposed to cry because crying is considered a sign of weakness, a sign that one has been overpowered by one’s emotions. For similar reasons, it is considered unmanly for men to show fear or pain or to express their sympathy for other men.” (Tyson, 86)
The fact of the situation of the story becomes clearer if we have these circumstances in mind but it is nevertheless an unreasonable moral. Today it seems that these times are over but however, we have still gender problems. The story should make us think about how we should deal with oppression in our future times. In my opinion we should just stop to distinguish between what somebody is supposed to do because of his sex. Both men and women can be proud about how they are because they are theirself and not because they behave the way it is expected from the society.
Tyson, Louis.Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide.Garland, 1999.
Birkle, Carmen.Kate Chopin: „The Storm“ – Die Geburt der „New Woman“ aus dem Geiste des Regionalismus. Klaus Lubbers Publisher:Die englische und amerikanische Kurzgeschichte. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt 1990.
The Kate Chopin International Society, 27 February 2017, www.katechopin.org/story-hour/