Essay on The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin as a Story of Female Self-Discovery
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Kate Chopin's The Story of an Hour is a short story that dates to the late nineteenth century. It focuses on the way a young woman reacts when she's informed that her husband, just died in a train accident. Because of this tragic situation, she suddenly finds herself free, and Chopin's short story describes what happens during that first hour.
One way to summarize the main subject of the story would be to quote the old roman saying Carpe Diem, which in English means seize the day, make the most of your life at every moment. But it's also about repression and oppression. In the late nineteenth century society, women were expected to be essentially housewives, not professionals. They were supposed to take care of their children and husband, to cook, to keep the house clean and the domestic environment running smoothly. The story suggests that Mrs. Mallard was not in charge of her own life but rather that she was in her husband's hands. This becomes evident as Jamil affirms that a woman is not expected to engage in self-assertion. She also complains that marriage, in her time, is a kind of slavery since the patriarchal system only allows for the complete dependence of wives on husbands. It also seems that Mrs. Mallard was content with her status quo and had no wish to take control over her own life and destiny. In the very opening sentence, Mrs. Mallard lets us know she has heart trouble rooted in the constant stress she has to deal with every day under a patriarchal system. But the story as a whole suggests that this is not a physical disease, as much as a symbol of psychological problems that come about to a woman who has unconsciously but willingly surrendered her heart and will to the paternalistic institutions of her own time. Those are the main subjects, but there are many other literary devices noticeable to the careful eye. The latter include symbolism, irony, personification, and simile.
Symbolism is a very strong device all along this short story because symbols can be clearly seen in most of the specific paragraphs. On the fifth paragraph, Kate Chopin describes how the open square across from her window becomes a revelation in itself, with the smell of rain in the air and the sparrows chirping in the eaves. Yet it's not the world that is changing, it is her own perception of the world that takes a wild turn. A well-known critic tells us, these items stir her hope and her joy, which is why they gather her attention. We are told how the colors in the air, the aromas, and the sounds are all reaching her and her heart. One can even say that the main character is having a vision. It's the perception of the newfound freedom she's getting. The way this emotion appears means that Louise has become sensitive, responsive and mindful.
Within this same paragraph, we learn that all these events happened in the spring. This piece of information is both symbolic and meaningful. Our character now believes a new and exciting life is becoming available to her. In the next paragraph, the author lets us know how she's having an epiphany about life and its meaning by simply looking at some patches of blue sky. This statement could suggest that sadness had created a death wish in her, but now, as she notices the blue sky, her life perception has suddenly changed.
This short story includes similes as well. One very evident instance of a simile is in a paragraph that affirms that the character achieves something of a victory. This can be interpreted as the victory our protagonist is winning by breaking free from the chains of her own patriarchal culture. In other words, she comes to understand that now, at last, living for herself is an option. She won't need to lead her life following her husband's commands. This idea is also present in the way Louise overcomes grief for her husband's death. The event, no matter how tragic, makes her free at last, and the joy this knowledge brings her pushes her to move forward.
Irony is yet another literary device you can find in this story. It starts with the very title The Story of an Hour, which is full of ironic resonance in itself. It seems that we're about to read something that happened during a single hour, but the story reads like these events took a couple of days to develop. Further irony can be detected here: Mrs. Mallard needed an hour only to realize how her late husband was getting in the way of her life and happiness. It would have taken years for another woman to arrive at this realization. The chief irony appears in the twenty-third paragraph as we read: "ah! joy that kills" (Chopin). This is the climactic hour of her life. The first hour of her life that is, at last, joyful. And this makes us understand yet another irony. People around Mrs. Mallard would assume she would have been happy to see her husband alive and well. The outcome for Mrs. Mallard is ironic as well. We see her develop, accept and plan for a new life, and we become persuaded that she has so much to live for. So, when she finally learns her husband is alive, after all, the sudden realization that she's lost everything she had to live for, kills her.
The ending is, in a way, pre-determined by the opening statement of the story. We are told that Mrs. Mallard was, in fact, sick with a heart condition, which is why everybody around her is trying to break her the news about her husband's death as carefully and gently as humanly possible. So knowing this piece of information gets us ready for the ending. This is a sick woman we are dealing with, which allows us to accept the ending we would not possibly accept in case of a healthy woman.
Louise's health condition is a central element in the story. We first learn about her by discovering she has a heart condition and that it could be a consequence of a whole life spent under the stress of her inferior position in a culture utterly dominated by men. Her face is described to us in the eighth paragraph as governed by the bespoke chagrin that dominates her countenance. A few paragraphs, later on, we are told that she lived her life with her will bent by another, more powerful person and that, on certain days, she had not loved her husband at all.
As she finally sees her husband alive, the truth strikes her violently. Her husband who is a happy and powerful man under the patriarchal system is never going to support the idea of a woman's path of self-discovery. The system is rigged in his favor, and they both know that. At the same time, she cannot go back from the path she's just been walking. So the question for the reader is, what ending would seem more plausible? Death by a heart attack or death by emotional distress? There is no paradox here, since both conditions present at the same time in the same person will always make each other worse, and are likely to be fatal.
It is also worth noticing that it takes quite a bit of text before we are told what our protagonist's first name actually is. We find out that her name is Louise quite late in the story, at paragraph sixteen. This could be a device for the author to show us her character's interior journey. She's always had a name, of course, but it's only in the sixteenth paragraph (that is, when she's discovered herself) that we are told the name. Chopin uses this subtle symbolic approach to emphasize that the name has a truly authentic and individual meaning instead and is not just a mere legal tag. This new identity, and thus - the name, is discovered through mourning for her husband. At this hour she both discovers and creates her new identity and becomes overwhelmed by emotion. Then Josephine, her sister, knocks on the door.
In The Story of an Hour, Kate Chopin is sharing a deep message with the readers. The deep symbolism can be seen through the development of the main character and the ending of the story. The main idea is live life to the fullest while you still can because the very same surprises that make it great, can take it away from you if you're not ready. This notion is enhanced further because this amazing statement about life comes from Mrs. Mallard, who for the longest possible time did nothing at all to fight the system (despite the fact she always hated it). Or, you may even say, she tried to moderately live her life to some degree of fullness. She could not realize that freedom is not to be taken for granted, and neither is individuality. That's how Chopin masterfully uses all the literary devices to convey a powerful message and make a lasting impact on her readers.