About the Author
Born Katherine O’Flaherty, Kate Chopin (1850-1904) was an American writer of considerable repute. She belonged to a St. Louis family. She read a lot of books as a girl. She was married in 1870 and was a devoted housewife. The untimely death of her husband brought about a drastic change in her life, and she began to write about the Creole and Cajun people whom she had observed closely. In her short stories she was greatly influenced by the prominent French writer, Guy de Maupassant.
After her death, her writings came into public limelight. Some critics now consider her to have been a forerunner of the feminist authors of the 20th century like Zelda Fitzgerald. From 1892 to 1895, Chopin wrote short stories both for children and adults. These stories were published in such magazines as Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, The Century Magazine and The Youth’s Companion. Her major works were two short story collections Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie. Her important short stories are ‘The Story of an Hour’ and ‘The Storm’. ‘The Storm’, in fact, is a sequel to ‘The Cadian Ball’ which appeared in her collection of short stories Bayou Folk.
Chopin wrote two novels : At Fault and The Awakening which are set in ‘New Orleans’ and ‘Grand Isle’ respectively. The characters in her stories are usually inhabitants of Louisiana.
Within a decade of her death on August 22, 1904, Chopin was widely recognized as one of the leading writers of her time. According to Fred Lewis Pattee, some of Chopin’s work is equal to the best that has been produced in France or even in America.
About the Story
‘The Story of an Hour’ focuses on the idea that a person may experience drastic changes in a short span of time. It shows how in a small hour a supposed death of a person reveals the true character of his wife and how it causes her death, of joy or of grief, we do not know exactly. The story was written by Kate Chopin on April 19, 1894. It was originally published in Vogue on December 6, 1894 as The ‘Dream of an Hour’.
Owing to Mrs Mallard’s heart trouble, everyone treats her carefully. When her husband’s friend Richards discovers that her husband Mr Mallard got killed in an accident, he shares the news with her sister Josephine. Both of them take time to gently tell Mrs Mallard that her husband has died. Mrs Mallard weeps bitterly with wild abandonment in Josephine’s arms. Then she goes to her room to be by herself and locks the room.
Inside the room, alone, she feels frightened of some knowledge that is coming of her. She realizes that it is her feeling of freedom. Although she is saddened by her husband’s death, she feels liberated for the first time . She looks forward to the days ahead instead of dreading them.
While Mrs Mallard is experiencing this changed state of mind, her sister tries to keep a check on her. Finally Mrs Mallard comes out of her room, newly resolved. She and Josephine start to go downstairs. Suddenly the very ‘not-dead’ Mr Mallard comes in. When Mrs Mallard sees him, she has a tremendous shock and dies.
A sad news : Mrs Mallard, a young pretty woman, is a heart patient. When the news of the death of her husband is confirmed by his friend Richards, he and Mrs Mallard’s sister Josephine are alarmed. They are puzzled as to how to break the sad news to her. They take every care to convey the news as gently as possible. Mrs Mallard, it is feared, may not receive a sudden shock. So Josephine dances around the truth until Mrs Mallard finally understands what has happened. In the meantime, Richards hangs out with them for moral support.
Mrs Mallard’s normal reaction : Mrs Mallard acts differently from most women in the same position who might disbelieve it. She weeps passionately in her sister’s arm. When the storm of grief has spent itself, she decides to go to her room to be by herself.
In her room, Mrs Mallard sits down in a comfy chair and feels completely depleted. She looks out of the window. She can see before her house tops of trees that are all fresh and alive with the new spring life. The delicious breath of the rain is in the air. She hears the notes of a distant song and twittering of sparrows. She sits still, occasionally sobbing briefly like a kid. She is young and fair but due to this news she looks preoccupied.
A new-found sense of freedom : Suddenly Mrs Mallard realizes that something is approaching her. She waits fearfully for this unknown feeling or knowledge. It seems to be too subtle and elusive. She breathes heavily and tries to resist before succumbing to this new knowledge, i.e. a feeling of freedom. She thinks to herself how she will cry when she sees the dead body of her husband. She is kind of excited about the chance to make her own decisions and not feel accountable to anyone. She feels even more swept by the idea of freedom than the fact that she had sometimes felt love for her husband. She focuses on how liberated she feels.
Josephine’s sisterly concern : Outside the locked door of Mrs Mallard, Josephine kneels with her lips to the keyhole and implores for admission. “Louise, open the door! I beg; open the door.” Mrs Mallard tells her to go away and fantasize about the exciting life ahead. Finally overcome by her sister’s pleading, she opens the door, and is ready to go with her. They descend the stairs.
Sudden death of Mrs Mallard : Suddenly the door opens and Mr Mallard, carrying his grip-sack and umbrella, comes in. He is not dead and doesn’t even know anyone thought he was dead and doesn’t even know anyone thought he was dead. Richards and Josephine try to protect Mrs Mallard from the sight but they fail to do so. Mrs Mallard sees her husband and receives the shock they had tried to prevent earlier, and dies. Later, the medical people who examine her say that she was full of so much happiness that it killed her.
The Value of Time : ‘The Story of an Hour’ shows how time is influential in human life. During the brief period of an hour Mrs Mallard undergoes drastic changes in life. The news of her husband’s death makes her realize something which she has never imagined – a feeling of freedom. She beings to exult about many years during which she will live for herself and she will not be accountable to anyone for her actions. However, her dream soon gets shattered as her ‘dead’ husband comes back home alive.
The Idea of Powerful Death : Another theme of the story is that death is very powerful. Even the news of someone else’s death (whom you love deeply), if told the wrong way can be lethal. On the other hand finding out that someone, dearly beloved, hasn’t died speaks of the terrible, almost welcome freedom a tragedy can bring. Ultimately, the fact that death is coming seems certain. It’s the question of who gets taken away by death.
Freedom of Body and Soul : From many veiled hints from the story it is clear that Mrs Mallard is unhappy with her married life. It is only after the death of her husband she realizes suddenly that she would enjoy complete freedom of body and soul. She beings to imagine those years when she will live for herself and will not be accountable to anyone for her actions:
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.
When all of a sudden this joyful dream of freedom is shattered on the sudden appearance of Mr Mallard, Mrs Mallard dies. Does she die of excessive joy on seeing her ‘dead’ husband? Or does she dies on realizing that her dream is never going to be a reality?
The story is not written to convey some clear message. We can only deduce it from the way the story is worked out. The message is that no one should try to impose his or her will on anyone else. It leads to much complications in life. Why does a young lady like Mrs Mallard have a heart trouble? Possibly it is due to her repression in married life where the will of the husband is supreme. The death of the husband sends Mrs Mallard into the dream world of coming freedom. So we should try to value the other person’s individuality and let him or her have freedom. It we do that, we are likely to save ourselves and others from troubles.
‘The Story of an Hour’ shows that the knowledge conveyed in a second can sometimes change everything. The title of the story is quite appropriate as all the events described in the story take place within the short span of an hour. Mrs Mallard receives the news of her husband’s death in a train accident. She cries her eyes out, and then goes to her room to be by herself. She seems to be preoccupied and absent for a few minutes. Then she reconciles herself to the new life. She is now a liberated woman, master of her own will. She has hardly reconciled herself to the new idea when her husband returns. The shock of his sudden arrival is too much for her. She dies, unable to bear the shock. All the action takes place within an hour.
The title is also suggestive. It underlines the elasticity and flexibility of time. In a long span of time nothing happens, and this stretched period becomes boring and even tiring. But in a short span of time life may undergo drastic changes. The supposed death of Mr Mallard causes the real death of his wife. And in that brief period we also realize how transitory human relationships are. Mrs Mallard begins to envisage a period of total freedom for her in the absence of her husband. But this visionary period soon comes to an end. The ‘dead’ husband comes suddenly before her, life a ghost, and she is no more. The shock is too much for her weak heart.
Thus, the title connected with the main theme of the story is both apt and suggestive.
Mrs Mallard is the central character in ‘The Story of an Hour’. She remains in focus throughout. Other characters are only peripheral, as they are mere devices to reveal her character. Mrs Mallard is young, fair-complexioned and pretty with a calm face that bespeaks repression and even a certain strength. She is bold enough to endure the heart-breaking news of her husband’s death. She weeps passionately in her sister’s arms. But when the storm of grief has spent itself, she calms down. She decides to go to her room to be by herself. She would have no one follow her.
Mrs Mallard is a complex character. Although she is saddened by her husband’s death, who had always loved her, once she is alone in her room she seems terrified of some knowledge that is coming to her. This new knowledge is approaching to possess her. At first she strives to bet it back with her will without realizing it. But finally, she succumbs to it. It is the feeling of her freedom. Her pulses beat fast and the coursing blood warms in her veins and relaxes every inch of her body as she welcomes this freedom. She thinks as to how she will cry when she sees her husband’s dead body and how much he loved her. She is kind of excited about the chance to make her own decisions and not feel accountable to anyone.
Mrs Mallard cherishes freedom. That is why, she dreams of exciting life ahead. She feels that there would be no one to live for during the coming years. She would, thus, live for herself. There would be no powerful will to bend her will. She feels even more swept by the idea of freedom than the fact that she had sometimes felt love for her husband. Now she focuses on how liberated she would feel.
While her fancy is running riot along those days ahead of her, her sister Josephine pleads to her to open the door and let her in. Finally she arises and opens the door. There is a feverish triumph in her eyes. They come down. At this stage the door opens and Mr Mallard, the ‘dead’ husband comes in. As soon as Mrs Mallard sees him she receives a shock. Unable to bear this shock, she dies of heart trouble. According to the doctors, she felt so much happiness that it killed her.
In short, she is a sensitive human being who seems to have been much oppressed. She wants to lead a life of freedom, which she fails to do.
Josephine, we are told, is Mrs Mallard’s sister. She seems to love her sister a lot. Like Richards, Mrs Mallard’s friend, she too becomes worried as how to break the sad news of Mr Mallard’s death to her sister. Knowing that her sister is afflicted with a heart trouble, she takes great care not to hurt her in any way. When she receives the news of Mr Mallard’s death in a train accident, she feels very sad for her sister. She breaks this news to Mrs Mallard as gently as possible. She sits down with her sister and consoles her gently taking her in her arms.
She is caring and affectionate. When Mrs Mallard goes to her room and locks herself in, Josephine kneels before the closed door. With her lips to the keyhole, she implores her for admission. She fears that her sister might not harm herself. Even when Mr Mallard comes in, she utters a piercing cry. She is afraid lest Mrs Mallard should see him and receive a shock of joy and excitement. But she is unable to save her sister who dies of joy that kills her.
Interesting story : ‘The Story of an Hour’ suggests that in the presence of life-changing realizations the passage of time becomes elastic and flexible. Within the span of an hour Mrs Mallard receives the news of her husband’s death, cries her eyes out, reconciles mentally with the new life and then receives the shock which kills her – the shock of Mr Mallard’s being alive . The span of one hour also allows the author to explore the feelings beyond grief or loss that one might have if a loved one dies.
Another theme in the story is that death is very powerful. Even the news of someone else’s death, if told the wrong way, can be lethal. Finding out someone hasn’t died can be almost equally deadly too.
Another theme that the writer has taken up is one of freedom and confinement. At first, freedom seems like a terrible thing to Mrs Mallard who is restricted in lots of ways through her marriage, by her bad heart, and even inside her home which she doesn’t leave. The news of her husband’s death seems to put an end to her confinement.
Setting : ‘The Story of an Hour’ is set in the house of Mrs and Mr Brently Mallard. Mrs Mallard’s room is on the first floor. Most of her brooding takes place here while she sits in the comfortable, roomy chair. There is an open square , the tops of the trees are all acquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain is in the air. In the street below peddlers move about selling their wares. Their cries can be easily heard. The twittering of sparrows in the eaves can also be heard. Most of the actions which is purely mental takes place here.
Narrative : The story is told in the third person by the omniscient narrator. It moves from the present to the future. However, the movement is very limited. Everything happens in a brief period of an hour. The way the author builds up suspense for a surprise ending is brilliant and deserves praise.