The end of the 19th century was marked by a rethinking of the role of women in civil society. It resulted in a movement against discrimination of women in political and economic life. Kate Chopin, an American novelist and short-story writer from St. Louis, was one of the first feminist authors to analyze the position of a woman in a marriage. The novel Awakening, dedicated to the problem of marital infidelity, caused a storm of indignation at Chopin and was banned for publication. This paper analyzes and interprets The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin and all its substantive and formal literary techniques in light of the topic of female confinement in domestic roles.
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The Plot and Point-of-View
The Story of an Hour is told by a third-person narrator who nevertheless knows the inner thoughts and feelings of the main character, Mrs. Mallard. This technique is not accidentally used in a story about a woman’s oppression and captivity in marriage. The narrator has access to a completely private space of Mrs. Mallard, which is compounded by the fact that the narrative continues after her death. Thus, the narrator is a figure who, on the one hand, enters the personal psychological space of the main character, and, on the other hand, continues the usual story after her death. In a sense, such traits are inherent in the male role in marriage.
The use of the third-person narrator also contributes to the literary irony effect in the plotline. The plot includes the effect of deceived expectations as well as an iceberg-style narration. After Mrs. Mallard rethought her life in marriage and experienced a sense of inner liberation, the reader does not expect to face the fact of her husband’s “resurrection” in the story. Though, it turns out that Brently Mallard “had been far from the scene of the accident, and did not even know there had been one” (Chopin 8). This appearance is both a plot surprise for the reader and an absolute shock for Mrs. Mallard.
The climax sets up expectations that the wife will be overjoyed to see her husband, and the irony is apparent only to the reader who knows the actual situation of her thoughts and feelings before. The narrator provides the reader foreshadowing at the beginning, referencing Mrs. Mallard’s heart condition and describes the joy of her liberation while she was alone in the room. Thus, the “tip of the iceberg” is how the situation looks for everyone in the story: “she had died of heart disease – of joy that kills” (Chopin 8).
The underlying implication is that the reader knows the real motives and causes of Brently’s wife’s death – a deep disappointment about the loss of freedom. According to Shen, Mrs. Mallard dies, “due to the monstrous joy that holds her and makes her unable to bear her husband’s return” (125). Thus, the literary irony effect arises from the ambiguous interpretation of the word “joy” and the discrepancy between what appears to be on the surface and the actual situation.
The Setting and Use of Time
The setting is of particular importance in the story since it provides a unique coloring to Mrs. Mallard’s experiences. The picture of the environment is portrayed amazingly fresh and attractive, “she could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life” (Chopin 6). The setting signifies the taste of freedom, and the author even uses a metaphor describing what is happening in the wife’s soul. “She was drinking a very elixir of life in through that open window” (Chopin 8).
The third-person narrator, discussing Mrs. Mallard’s inner feelings, indicates that she has acquired the self-assertion at that point. Berkove notes that self-assertion as a value conflicts with marital values, where “shared goals and mutual commitment” are considered to be of greater significance (154). Thus, the setting as it appears to Mrs. Mallard in her room is opposed to the setting, as she perceived it in marriage.
as little as 3 hours
The episode describing how she accepted the news husband’s death is meant to figure out what this event was about for her. She did not hear it “with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance” (Chopin 6). Mrs. Mallard immediately realized what happened and felt a sudden abandonment. The reader expects the wife to be immersed in a painful emotional experience when she arrives in the room, but the setting destroys these expectations. “There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair” (Chopin 6). Abandonment at first seems to be a great loss, but it turns out to be liberation from the domestic confinement. In the room, she receives a comfortable, private place from where she can enjoy the view out the window.
Special mention should be made of the fact that Mrs. Mallard gets only one “hour” of freedom. According to Berenji, she “achieves this freedom suddenly through her husband’s death, and it lasts just for a short time, and again this freedom is taken from her” (230). This circumstance is emphasized even in the title of the story. Mrs. Mallard receives an hour of liberation and self-assertion, but this hour is so valuable to her that she is unable to part with this experience.
The Character Analysis: Mrs. Mallard
Certain aspects of Mrs. Mallard’s character indicate contradictions that relate to the broader theme of contradictions or oppositions of the female domestic role. It is worth reconsidering the way she received the news of her husband’s death. Mrs. Mallard “wept at once, with sudden,” and for some reason experienced “the storm of grief” (Chopin 6). Shen states that this scene “is discordant with the contextual expectation that a wife’s grief at her loving husband’s death will last at least for a few days, not just for some minutes” (118). This contradiction may reflect the ambiguous position of the wife in the marriage. She is expected to be in sorrow, but the society is organized in such a way that the death of her husband is perceived as liberation.
It is also no coincidence that Kate Chopin describes Mrs. Mellard’s appearance and facial features. She “was young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength” (Chopin 7). The author emphasizes that something causes a young face to be lined and appear repressed. A woman gets married very young and full of strength, and there she is already obliged to obey the stereotypes of society and the will of her husband. That is precisely why “she had loved him – sometimes. Often she had not” (Chopin 8). The husband could be a worthy man in himself, but his role in marriage was strongly associated with oppression, which is the principal contradiction displayed in the story.
Overall, it should be concluded that Kate Chopin uses literary irony effect and iceberg-style narration to demonstrate how far a woman’s experience of marriage is from the way society sees it. At the same time, experiencing the end of the domestic confinement for only an hour brings an incredible sense of liberation and self-assertion to Mrs. Mallard. In the course of narration, the reader encounters many contradictions in the behavior and feelings of the main character, which reflect the contradictions in the status of a woman in marriage. The Story of an Hour clearly shows all the ambiguity of female confinement in domestic roles.
Berenji, Fahimeh Q. “Time and Gender in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ and Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour.’” Journal of History, Culture & Art Research, vol. 2, no. 2, 2013, pp. 221–234.
Berkove, Lawrence I. “Fatal Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’.” American Literary Realism, vol. 32, no. 2, 2000, pp. 152-158.
Chopin, Kate. The Story of an Hour. Jimcin Recordings, 1981.
Shen, Dan. “Non-Ironic Turning Ironic Contextually: Multiple Context-Determined Irony in ‘The Story of an Hour’.” Journal of Literary Semantics, vol. 38, no. 2, 2009, pp. 115-130.