An Interpretation of the Story "Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin

With a Focus on the Story’s Main Character Louise Mallard


Seminar Paper, 2014

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Excerpt

Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Analysis and Interpretation
2.1 Exterior Perception – Expectations of a Nineteenth-Century Society
2.1.1 How the Other Characters of the Story Perceive Louise
2.1.2 How the Doctors Misinterpret Louise´s Death
2.2 Interior Perception – Feministic Mindset
2.2.1 Louise Recognises her Inner Wish to Break with Conventions
2.2.2 Louise Values Self-Assertion Higher than Love

3. Conclusion

4. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Louise Millard´s external appearance perfectly conforms to what her environment expects of her. She grieves for her reportedly dead husband and shows great emotions. Her wish to be alone for some time is also nothing unusual for someone who has to bear such a great loss. Up to this point in the short story her behaviour triggers what everybody takes for normal, namely that the widow Mrs. Mallard is suffering times of immeasurable emotional pain and despair. This state of dismay and sadness soon wears off after she has shut the door behind her, and is screened from all the preoccupied faces of the others. Now, that she is alone she knows that she does not have to pretend false feelings anymore. Slowly, Louise begins to relax and develop new senses for the world outside the window and the feelings coming from the bottom of her heart to the surface where they had been locked during the years as a married woman. But Louise is not entirely alone – the reader observes her secret wish for absolute freedom, and he alone is able to see the discrepancy between appearance and reality which the story´s characters cannot detect. Although this hour of revelation brings to light the second self of Louise Mallard, it also leaves many questions open. Who is she really – this woman with a split identity and secret wishes? As the reader is the only person who has access to both her exterior behaviour and a part of her interior thoughts, he is able to analyse Louise Mallard´s character and the incentive of her being to a certain extent.

By doing so, the careful reader discovers that she is not the warm-hearted woman and caring wife the story´s characters believe her to be because her interior emotions are restricted by her environment and thus cannot be recognised by the persons in the story. On the one hand, there are the characters in the story whose perception of Louise is limited to the exterior they see, talk to and observe. Although they are very close to her - both physically and emotionally as her friend and sister – they are not able to understand her nature. Thus, it is no wonder that the doctors, who are less close to her, misinterpret the reason for her sudden death. On the other hand, the reader is able to gain some insight into her mindset. He follows Louise through the recognition of her inner wish to break with conventions by unveiling her yearning for freedom, and he stays with her when she comes to realise that self-assertion is of greater importance to her than love.

In order to avoid misunderstanding an important key term shall be defined and explained in more detail in the following. “Environment” includes three different dimensions: first, the abiotic environment containing lifeless matter such as the house and the closed window; second, the biotic or social environment, in concrete terms her friends, relatives and every person she interacts with as representatives of contemporary society and its norms and values; and third, time as a limited resource. These three semantic levels of her “environment” force Louise to hide her inner self behind a mask. This mask shows a warm-hearted woman who is easily overwhelmed by her great emotions and is able to love from the bottom of her heart, and a caring wife who always speaks kindly of her husband.

2. Analysis and Interpretation

2.1 Exterior Perception – Expectations of a Nineteenth-Century Society

Louise Mallard, the protagonist of the short story, is depicted in the most crucial hour of her life. Until then, she had been the wife of Brently Mallard, and as a married wife she always had to behave the way it was expected of her. Being a married woman in the nineteenth century carried a different meaning than it does in our time. In order to understand Mrs. Mallard´s dilemma one has to be aware of what it meant for a woman to be married in the nineteenth century.

[W]hat it meant to be a husband or a wife then was strikingly different than today. […] today […], a wife and her husband are two individuals who have contracted to live together, as a result of which they jointly acquire legal and social privileges and some duties and responsibilities. [...] We […] generally retain our prior identities as separate and unrelated individuals. […] One always remains an individual. […]

By contrast, the [nineteenth-century society] [...] expected that the individual identities of women and men would be changed permanently by the ceremony. To become a husband or a wife was to inhabit a legal role, a legal personality, that carried with it strong and stringent public expectations as to conduct and responsibility. That legal person, that collection of legal rights and duties – the husband, the wife – existed regardless of an individual's relative discontent with the identity. (Hartog 97)

This explanation shows that Louise, just as every woman, was restricted in her freedom by dedicating her life to the husband, and even if she was unhappy with this situation, the code of conduct would demand of her not to show it in public. As the unsuspecting behaviour of the story´s characters reveals, she has not told anyone about her secret wish for freedom and thus has not broken this code of conduct, but kept her thoughts and feelings to herself. Consequently, Richards, Josephine, and the doctors having no insight into her mind can only assume the causes for the behaviour they are able to observe. This is why their exterior perception of Louise is not reliable. As Mayer puts it, the short story “illustrate[s] the dangers of making assumptions” (94) which he calls “the observation-inference confusion” (94) and “inferences lead to tragedy” (Mayer 94). Indeed, the short story ends with a tragedy when Louise dies of “heart disease” (Chopin 79).

2.1.1 How the Other Characters of the Story Perceive Louise

A close reading of the passage where Richards and Josephine try to tell Mrs. Mallard the news “as gently as possible” (Chopin 77) reveals some aspects of how they perceive her and what they might think about her. The first thing that crosses Richards´ mind when he is confronted with the news of Brently´s death is that he must “forestall any less careful, less tender friend in bearing the sad message” (Chopin 77). He seems to be worried that Mrs. Mallard will not be able to cope with this stroke of fate because he knows that she has a weak heart. His actions also imply that he believes she really loved her husband and will react very emotionally to his demise. His worries seem to grow on his way from the newspaper office to Mrs. Mallard´s house because being only “[h]er husband´s friend” (Chopin 77) he decides to transfer the responsibility to someone more closely related to Louise. This person is her sister, Josephine, who also appears to be highly preoccupied. She struggles to find the right words which is why she is only able to speak “in broken sentences” and makes “veiled hints that reveal[] in half concealing” (Chopin 77) rather than telling her the truth straightforward. Although Mrs. Mallard´s reaction is as intense as the others expected, Chopin already indicates that she behaves differently from “many women [who] have heard the same [story]” (Chopin 77). Another foreshadowing of Louise´s later self-recognition is that she “unconsciously chooses to enfold herself in a female embrace and not in the arms of the male friend [...], Louise has already turned to a female world, one in which she is central” (Koloski 132). “When Louise [...] goes to her room to be alone [this is a] behaviour certainly expected of a new widow” (Mayer 95), but instead of “mak[ing] [her]self ill” (Chopin 79) she is just beginning to heal from the wounds of a life restricted by marriage. “There would be no powerful will bending her in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature” (Chopin 78). As soon as the door is shut behind her, she has “lock[ed] out her social world [and with it] also [...] social conventions” (Jamil 217). Her feelings of grief turn to “a monstrous joy” (Chopin 78) that would certainly be strongly dismissed by her social environment. Louise has lived an “artificial life of empty conventions” (Jamil 216), and what the others see is only her “social self – Mrs. Mallard” (Koloski 132), but they do not detect her “private, female self – Louise” (Koloski 132). They only see what they want and expect to see in her, “Josephine [...] also makes the observation-inference confusion when [...] she mistakes Louise´s ecstatic behaviour for sickness” (Mayer 95). Josephine´s “importunities” (Chopin 79) clearly annoy Louise, whereas Josephine and everybody else is seriously concerned about her.

2.1.2 How the Doctors Misinterpret Louise´s Death

The doctors, who record the death of Mrs. Mallard, make an assumption about the reason for her death that is audacious in the eyes of the critical reader, but it confirms the other characters in their belief that Louise as a caring wife was overwhelmed by the sudden joy of seeing her presumed dead husband. “In each case, the interpretations confirm what the group of witnesses would like to believe happened, according to their views of patriarchal marriage” (Cunningham 52). Still, the statement that she died of “joy that kills” (Chopin 79) is “an occasion for deep irony directed at patriarchal blindness about women´s thoughts” (Toth, Chopin Reconsidered 24) because Louise had just been about to let the newly gained freedom in and look forward to the years to come when “all sorts of days [...] would be her own” (Chopin 79). While the doctors decide on the interpretation that Louise suffered a heart attack because of sudden joy, Chopin´s wording in fact leaves open several possibilities to speculate about the real causes of Mrs. Mallard´s death.

One interpretation is that “Mrs. Mallard dies from the dismay that kills” (Stein 65) and that is why she suffers a heart attack and dies when she sees her husband entering through the front door. This interpretation is rather likely because she descended the stairs in the knowledge that “[t]here would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself” (Chopin 78) and she was hoping for a long life without him. With this insight into her secret thoughts it becomes clear that she definitely is not happy to see her husband alive. This shock “sap[s] Louise´s strength to the limits of what she can bear” (Cunningham 51) and her heart is not able to cope with the inner confusion anymore.

The second possibility focuses on her heart which has been weakened by the up and down of her emotions during the last hour and by the exertion of her inner rebellion against society conventions and the expectations of the others. If it is the explosion of emotions that eventually kills her, then, she has somehow destroyed herself.

What Chopin is doing, very subtly, is depicting Louise in the early stages of the delusion that is perturbing her precariously unstable health by aggravating her pathological heart condition. The ‘monstrous’ surge of joy she experiences is both the cause and first sign of a fatal overload to her feeble heart. (Berkove 156)

This particular word choice (“monstrous joy” (Chopin 78)) could also indicate that Louise is not only the poor victim of society conventions, but that “[i]n truth, [she herself] is sick, emotionally as well as physically” (Berkove 156). After all, she claims that she has loved her husband – at least sometimes (Chopin 78) – and it is still a great loss and not an appropriate occasion to only think about herself and to be happy on the costs of another human being. She, however, is only centred on herself and her yearning for freedom stops at nothing. The fact that she immediately “dismiss[es] the suggestion as trivial” (Chopin 78) without even reflecting on it for a minute shows what a radical turn her longing for self-assertion has taken. However, it is still understandable that she feels happy to be freed from the shackles of marriage if self-assertion is really the “strongest impulse of her being” (Chopin 78). But not even a strong woman like Louise “whose powers of reflection have been repressed, suddenly shocked into being, and then brutally cut off” (Papke qtd. in Stein 59) can cope with such “emotional and spiritual strain” (Cunningham 51) – “[alt]hough she [...] has transcended the boundaries of her past self, she is not armed for the lethal intrusion of the past world through her front door” (Koloski 133). One must imagine that she has finally made a decision for herself and against what everybody expects from her, this being a decision that requires courage, strength and a lot of energy. It is a dream of a completely new life. All of this collapses when the embodiment of her former life – her husband – re-enters her life. A few minutes before this turning point she was “standing confidently at the top of the stairs, the height of which represents Louise´s exalted state, she has reached the zenith of self-awareness” (Jamil 219). The word “zenith” perfectly fits not only Louise´s inner state of self-recognition, but is also mirrored in the image of her standing at the top of the stairs. Crossing the zenith means that she will not be able to stay on the top – after the climb inevitably comes the fall. When descending the stairs she approaches her own death – literally. Louise is the victim of her own desires to break out of her predetermined role in society. Only through the attempt to gain absolute self-assertion she is enabled to realise that

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Excerpt out of 15 pages

Details

Title
An Interpretation of the Story "Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin
Subtitle
With a Focus on the Story’s Main Character Louise Mallard
College
University of Tubingen
Grade
1,3
Author
Year
2014
Pages
15
Catalog Number
V491368
ISBN (eBook)
9783346008060
Language
English
Tags
Short Story Analysis
Quote paper
Carolin Sihler (Author), 2014, An Interpretation of the Story "Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/491368

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