Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” chronicles a final hour of freedom in the life of a woman held captive by the shackles of convention and compromise. Upon being informed of her husband’s unexpected death, Louise Mallard locks herself in her room, where she awakens to the dreams imprisoned within her – visions of independence and individuality, which now in the absence of her husband have a chance of coming true. At the end of the story, however, her husband walks through the front door, and unable to bear the thought of returning to her cage once she has been released, Louise escapes in the only route available to her: death. Chopin communicates the overall theme of “The Story of an Hour”, the individual’s desire for freedom in the face of outside pressures and expectations, through her powerful use of conflict, imagery, and irony. An examination of each of these elements will reveal the method by which Chopin conveys her poignant message.
Those who seek conflict in “The Story of an Hour” need look no further than the first sentence. Chopin immediately sets about the business of incarcerating Louise Mallard in a cell of external problems. To start with, she is “afflicted with a heart trouble” (412), and upon the event of her husband’s death, her loved ones close in on her with a solicitousness that, while certainly well-meant, is almost suffocating in its cocksure presumption of her fragility. Perhaps threatened by this, Louise flees to the solitude of her bedroom, desperately needing to process the tragedy on her own.
Once the door to her room is shut, the battle for freedom retreats to the inner chambers of Louise’s psyche. She is caught off guard when the feeling flooding those chambers is not sorrow, but rather an exhilarating sense of freedom. Since she has been tutored in the grim school of convention, this unorthodox response to the death of her spouse terrifies her. She instinctually struggles to “beat it back with her will” (413). The struggle is brief: within moments Louise bursts from her bonds, whispering excitedly, “‘Free! Body and soul free!’” (413)
At this point, Chopin unveils the identity of the prison from which Louise has just been released. In a series of hasty retrospective glances, an image emerges of Brently Mallard, the decent but domineering husband whose “powerful will” has succeeded in reducing his wife to a “powerless” creature with a face “whose lines bespoke repression” (413). Brently personifies the imprisonment in which she lives. When he disappears, so do the other conflicts that encage her; when he reappears, they all rush back to reclaim their victim.
“The Story of an Hour” is replete with vivid imagery that emphasizes the themes of captivity and freedom. Louise’s room is a case in point. The fact that she uses it as her escape from the overpowering influences of other people suggests her need for independence. When she shuts herself inside, the reader is reminded that she has kept her individuality bottled up, not allowing her true self to stray from the confines of some chamber hidden deep in her soul.
Of course the open window in her bedroom implies freedom, but in an ultimately limited sense: it allows a view of the outside world, but an attempt to escape to that world through the window would be suicide. Similarly, Louise does get a glimpse of the liberty she craves, but in the end, she can only escape her captivity through death. An open door would have been a far better omen for Louise. But “the front door is locked; only Brently has the key. He can come and go as he pleases, but she remains trapped within” (Rosenblum).
Finally, Chopin employs irony to intensify the meaning of the narrative. Throughout the story, each of the characters makes assumptions that are revealed to the reader as faulty and absurd. For instance, when Louise isolates herself in her room, her sister begs her to “‘open the door – you will make yourself ill’” (414). The irony here is that Louise is less ill at this point in the story than at any other: “Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body” (413). Through this one scenario, the people in Louise’s world are exposed as blind to anything but their own expectations for Louise. They believe she is grieving because that is what convention requires of a recent widow. Little do they know that she has never been happier in her life.
Of course, one can hardly blame them for making such assumptions. After all, how often does the news of death bring someone so dramatically to life? As one commentator notes, “each has no reason to believe she/he is assuming… Indeed, we often do not realize we are assuming, and some assumptions are excusable” (Mayer). However, the apparent inability of Louise’s acquaintances to perceive the truth of her situation, while no doubt attributable to common human error, is particularly pathetic. They are dutifully smothering her in the earnest certainty that air would be too much for her lungs. When their work of strangulation is complete, the doctors who examine her fallen body are equally blind to the cause of her demise: they confidently conclude that she has “died of heart disease – of the joy that kills” (414). Even Louise’s final act is misinterpreted – and by authoritative sources at that. In reality, just as her husband’s death brought her to life, his life has brought her to death.
Kate Chopin effectively utilizes conflict, imagery, and irony to paint a poignant portrait of a woman striving for independence in a world that refuses to recognize her individuality. The combination of these three elements evocatively communicates the greater meaning of “The Story of an Hour”: the irrepressible human desire for freedom, even in the face of relentless outside pressures and expectations. Louise Mallard’s longings for liberation may have been misinterpreted and suppressed by the tyranny of her circumstances, but ultimately, the soul will be free – even if its only escape route is through the window of death.
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Rosenblum, Joseph. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition.
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