Personal liberty supersedes the constraints of societal conventions. This is the message of Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” which centers on Louise Mallard, a married woman who learns she is now a widow. Her sister informs her that her husband has died in an accident, causing her to break down into sobs. However, her tears are not those of one whose life has been derailed at the loss of a loved one. While she does indeed mourn her husband’s death, her weeping is more joyful than melancholic. Mallard, who has suffered in silence for years in a restrictive marriage, at last feels that she can live her own life. Her fantasy is cut short when her husband, alive after all, retums along with the prospect of living the rest of her life in subordination. This proves too much for her, and she falls ill and dies. Her heart cannot withstand the thought of losing her freedom after only just regaining it. This freedom is worth more to her than the security of marriage, something unexpected for women of her time. While her independent spirit is never explicitly commented on the environment around her leads the reader to infer this about her character, playing a crucial role in mirroring her state of mind.
Written in the late 19h century, Chopin’s tale is set in a period when women had little to look forward to in their lives besides marriage and having children. As it was still uncommon for them to be able to pursue their own paths, they often felt forced into becoming wives and mothers, even as they dreamed of something more. Contemporary society chose to ignore this aspect of many women and continued to hold them to standards of behavior that kept them suppressed. These kinds of expectations are what Mallard rejoices at spurning after the death of her husband. To her, he represented the 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” (Chopin). In her eyes, her husband was not cruel, but informed by the societal conventions of the time-conventions that allowed and even encouraged men to domineer over women. This was the kind of environment that Chopin was writing to with “The Story of an Hour,” her aim being to illustrate how poisonous this dynamic can be for individualistic women like Mallard.
Mallard’s free spirit and independent personality that are so essential to her character and to the message of the story) are made evident by her surroundings. Upon learning of her husband’s passing, Mallard retreats to her room. The scene outside her window signals what her true feelings are outside, there are trees that were all aquiver with new spring life,” “the notes of a distant song,” and “sparrows twittering in the eaves” (Chopin). A setting more congruent with what society expects Mallard to feel would include heavy, dark clouds, pouring rain, and perhaps some wailing in the streets. However, Chopin populates the outside world with bright Images and lovely sounds because Mallard’s chief emotion is not sorrow, but joy. Mallard feels she can begin life anew, like the newly grown trees. She is jubilant at this thought, emulated by the music outside and the happy chirping of the birds. Her independent nature is brought to life through her surroundings so that the reader can appreciate the true meaning of the story’s end.
After embracing the new direction her life is headed, Louise Mallard triumphantly descends the stairs to the front door of her house. There she is met with the sight of her husband, shattering her dreams of a future liberated from his control. She dies at that very moment, and the doctors determine the cause to be “the joy that kills” (Chopin). This would indeed be the interpretation of that society. The reader knows, though, that her death is the result of being faced with the reality of living the rest of her days in accordance with his will. This is because of Mallard’s natural desire for independence, something made clear through the details of her surroundings. The loss of a freedom that she has hardly had the chance to experience is fatal, showing how precious she holds this freedom. Through this ending, Chopin illustrates the value of personal liberty, at a time when it was practically denied to half the population, as well as the harm caused by societal conventions and expectations.
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