In Kate Chopin’s short story, “The Story of an Hour,” Louise Mallard emerges as a newly freed slave after the untimely death of her husband. Within the context of the story, it being written in a time of a male-dominated society, Louise’s joy with her new life without her husband seems radical. An even more puzzling part of the story is Louise’s sudden death after her husband’s return and apparent false death. While interpreting any story, it is important to take into consideration the different circumstances associated with its setting and the period of time it was written it.
In addition, it is also critical to examine the author’s standpoint on the issues facing that time related to his or her intentions in the story itself. Taking into consideration of both of these elements, it can be concluded that the cause of Louise Mallard’s death is the “joy that kills” (Kirszner & Mandell, 116), not from seeing her husband reappear but, from the extreme excitement and stir of emotions she experiences with the realization of her independence.
In the critical essay, “The Autonomous Female Self and the Death of Louise Mallard”, Cunningham argues that even after the death of her husband Brently Mallard, Louise cannot survive alone in a patriarchal society. Cunningham emphasizes that “the story portrays the position of women in late nineteenth-century American society as so bleak that the attempt to break from the life-denying limitations of patriarchal society is itself self-destructive” (48-55). He believes Louise’s cause of death is the realization that she cannot function in society without a husband.
However, Cunningham fails to evaluate Louise’s desire to live a self-determining and independent life. This is very clear in the story because it is not until after the knowledge of her husband’s death that Louise is referred to by her first name, and not by her husband’s surname. Only then does the reader have access to Louise’s thoughts and feelings about her relationship and her desires. This refutes Cunningham’s theory because it is clear that Louise craves independence and is able to function alone. By comparing Louise’s life with and without her husband, Chopin gives a glimpse of Louise’s discontent and entrapment in her marriage. Her excitement at the idea of breaking free of this is evident to the reader when the point-of-view shifts from third to first person.
Chopin portrays a negative image of Louise’s marriage, as Louise’s character expresses her feelings of dissatisfaction and discouragement of her constricting relationship. This is evident in the story as Louise “breathed a quick prayer that life might be long” (116), implying that she will live a valuable and fulfilling life after all.
As she enters her bedroom after learning of her husband’s death, Louise examines the event and “she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely” (116). She was awaiting the freedom that would belong to her soon and she was prepared for it, which rejects Cunningham’s statements about Louise’s inability to lead an independent life in a patriarchal society. The depiction of Louise’s life before and after her husband’s supposed death are clear and provide an understanding of why her sudden independence would arise overwhelming emotions strong enough to cause her heart to fail.
When she finds out about her husband’s death, it appears that Louise goes to her room to mourn her loss. However this is not the case at all, as Chopin describes positive imagery through the nature Louise sees from her window. While sitting next to the open window, Louise starts to feel her freedom, noticing “the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life” (115).
These images of springtime are symbolic of Louise’s rebirth and new beginning she is about to immerse herself in. It is clear that the new life that awaits her doesn’t frighten her, as she “opened and spread her arms out to [it] in welcome” (116). It is incompatible that a woman of such enthusiasm and optimism would be “unable to thrive in patriarchal society” (Cunningham, 48- 55). It is obvious that as Louise is “drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window” (116), she is able to not only thrive without a man, but experience self-actualization.
Louise expresses that “There would be no powerful will bending hers in the blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature” (116). The amount of control her marriage has imposed upon Louise is overbearing and is something no person should have to suffer. Here we can see Chopin’s criticism of the male-dominated society she lived in. In the critical essay, “Fatal Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour,” Berkove argues that Louise is an “immature egoist and a victim of her own extreme self-assertion” (152-158). He believes that Louise’s death is caused by her overexcitement and selfishness of her sudden independence.
He also argues that in the text “there is no hard evidence whatsoever of patriarchal blindness or suppression, constant or selfless sacrifice by Louise, or an ongoing struggle for selfhood” (152-158), implying that this story has no purpose to portray a criticism of a society. As stated previously, it is crucial that while examining a text, one takes into consideration the context of the story, and Berkove has failed to do so, leading to a statement based only on the surface of the text. The purpose of a story is to leave out much of the information to enable the reader to make inferences and assumptions based on circumstances, setting and time in place of the story. Based on these assumptions and what one can uncover below the surface of the text, Louise Mallard’s overwhelming excitement about her new freedom causes her heart to fail.
Louise’s excitement builds as she transitions from imagining her life as an independent woman, into her transcending the stairs to begin living it. Her autonomy is her victory, and the more she breathes in the “delicious breath of rain [that] was in the air” (115), the more she becomes overwhelmed by it. Louise glides down the stairs, her emotions run high and her weak heart cannot handle the excitement. At this time, she suffers a heart attack moments before noticing her husband’s return. It is clear that the “joy that kills” (116) is caused by the anticipation of stepping into the world as a strong, unbound, self-governing female.
Louise Mallard has become a widow, but is in no way feeling remorse about her husband’s death. She gains more from her husband’s supposed death than she did while he was alive. Chopin compares and contrasts her relationship with her husband, with her new way of life as a liberated woman. Repetitive imagery of optimism, positivity and rebirth throughout the short story validates the argument that Louise is overcome by the idea of a free and independent life that would solely belong to her.
After her entrapped life with her husband, she is a victorious “goddess” (116) to have come to attain this life of freedom. As the reader is informed in the first sentence of the text, Louise Mallard is “afflicted with a heart trouble” (115), one that proved to be unable to handle the “monstrous joy” (116) of her husband’s passing. However, this fails to be the case as it is clear that Louise dies from the feebleness of her heart and the overjoy of her newly-born independence. With the recurring idea of patriarchy and male dominance, as a female author, Kate Chopin would be much more likely to imply Louise’s death as a result of this newfound freedom as oppose to her inability to survive in a male-dominated society or her “egoistic immaturity and extreme self-assertion.”