The end of the Victorian era may be viewed as a period when the movement for female equality gathered momentum. Before that, women enjoyed much fewer rights than men and occupied a lower, subordinate position in society. However, throughout the 19th century, many females aimed to oppose the established situation, and female writers were at the forefront of that opposition. Kate Chopin is one of the 19th-century authors who criticized patriarchal order in her works by depicting the problems that women living in the unequal social arrangement faced regularly. “The Story of an Hour,” a short piece that was written in 1894, perfectly captures Chopin’s feminist mindset and her condemnatory attitude to patriarchy. The emotional experiences of Louise Mallard, the main character of the story, after her husband’s alleged death, indicate that she was oppressed during her marriage. The news of Mr. Mallard’s demise, although turned out to be false in the end, signified the beginning of new free life for her. The present essay will analyze the symbolism associated with Mr. Mallard’s death and Mrs. Mallard’s emerged feeling of liberation.
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“The Story of an Hour” starts with Josephine, Louise Mallard’s sister, telling the latter that Mr. Mallard was killed in a railroad accident. After hearing the news, the main character first cried “in her sister’s arms,” yet, when she went to her room and spent time alone there, her view of the event had changed (Chopin 1). The main character suddenly realized that since her husband was gone, she could be free. Even though the death of Mr. Mallard was undoubtedly sad, “she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely” (Chopin 2). This image of anticipated freedom shows that, as a woman in a patriarchal society, Louise Mallard occupied an inferior position in her marriage, and her preferences and needs were often unaccounted for.
A few points in Chopin’s story verify the abovementioned assumption. Firstly, the character viewed her husband as a “powerful will bending hers” (Chopin 2). In other words, Mr. Mallard could frequently impose his opinions and interests on his wife. As noted in the story, to exercise such kind of psychological pressure was regarded as a norm by all the members of the 19th-century society (Chopin 2). For Mrs. Mallard, however, the imposition of one person’s will on another was a crime regardless of whether this act was accompanied by “a kind intention or a cruel intention” (Chopin 2). It means that while the character’s husband believed that he could manage the life of the former since he had the power to do so, Louise was constantly failing to attain self-realization and follow her interests. Thus, the news about Mr. Mallard’s death was eventually perceived by Mrs. Mallard as an opportunity to be herself and made her feel joyous and happy for a short time.
The fact that Louise realized her newfound liberty when hidden from others in her room also indicates that her reaction was an innermost experience and deviated from the social norm. At first, the woman tried to avoid indulging in the “monstrous joy,” and “was striving to beat it back with her will” (Chopin 2). It is valid to say that even those women who were unhappy in marriage in the 19th century would not find the courage to feel happy after learning about their spouses’ passing away. As another passage from the story reveals, the majority of them would be paralyzed with “inability to accept [the] significance” of such news (Chopin 1). As for largely dependent individuals, a husband’s death could have many serious social and economic implications for a Victorian woman and was not merely linked to the sense of the loss of a loved one. Besides that, it was expected of women to serve their spouses and regard highly of them (Hughes). Therefore, it was normal to suppress any negative feelings towards a husband or own position in marriage and society.
Overall, Louise’s joy was not a sign of insensitivity. It should be viewed as a natural outcome of years of psychological oppression. The day before the accident, the character “had thought with a shudder that life might be long,” whereas after hearing the news, she “breathed a quick prayer that life might be long” (Chopin 3). This sharp change from a depressed state of mind and unwillingness to live to a blissful aspiration for the days to come demonstrates the severity of Mrs. Mallard’s misery in relationships with her husband. It shows that she was married not because she was in love but only because she was supposed to become a wife and that the compliance with the social norm contradicted her true desires. Noteworthily, there was almost no other way out from a situation like this for the character but the death of Mr. Mallard since divorces were not common in the Victorian era. Thus, the news provided her with hope to reclaim her life from the grip of social conventions.
The case of Mrs. Mallard as depicted in “The Story of an Hour” may be considered an example of the experiences of many women living in the 19th century. In those times, females became married merely because they were expected to comply with the social roles of wives and mothers. Often, they had unhappy marriages and no power to escape abusive and oppressive relationships. Thus, the supposed death of Mr. Mallard in Chopin’s story serves as a symbol of females’ liberation, whereas Mrs. Mallard’s happiness represents hope for 19th-century women to become fully realized in their lives.
Chopin, Kate. The Story of an Hour. Web.
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Hughes, Kathryn. “Gender Roles in the 19th Century.” British Library, 2014, Web.