In The Story of an Hour, author Kate Chopin paints a tale of one woman’s liberation. Written in 1894, the short story is full of symbolism that gives the story depth far beyond the scope of its two page length. The events surrounding Mrs. Mallard’s release from oppression are open-ended and believable, allowing both her character and the story to be applicable to any number of women in any number of time periods throughout history. The Story of an Hour is littered with symbolic references which make it both satisfying and believable.
Chopin’s own history certainly puts an interesting spin on her works. Born in 1851, she was married at the early age of 19. Although educated at convent schools, it is reported that Chopin often offended the members of the high society her husband was a part of with her unique set of beliefs and manners. Chopin began writing after her husband’s sudden death when she was 32 years old. In that sense, this story could be a slightly skewed version of the emotions that followed after his death. Chopin’s literary career would certainly support this cause, as she is renown for writing honest stories which were often about women’s liberation. At the time, Chopin’s work was criticized heavily, for it did not fit into the cultural context of the Victorian era.
Kate Chopin uses many expert writing techniques to construct the story’s plot. It is for this reason that the plot is so open-ended and debatable. Chopin uses the first two paragraphs to construct all of the background for her story. The reader is left knowing very little about the circumstances surrounding Mrs. Mallard’s life. The first line introduces Mrs. Mallard’s heart condition, which leaves the reader with the impression that she is at least in her late thirties. Her husband’s friend Richards is positive that Mr. Mallard was onboard a train that crashed, killing all of its passengers. This is all the reader is left with after reading the first two introductory paragraphs. Missing are details regarding the couple’s age, location, time period, marriage life, and any personal thoughts or feelings. Chopin’s lack of critical details does not to detract from her story, however. Instead, she is able to make the story more interpretable and raise it to a more symbolic level.
The story’s length also works as one of its greatest assets. The title implies that the entire sequence of events takes place within an hour. As discussed in the paragraph above, Chopin wisely leaves many details of the story out. This leaves the reader to fill in the blanks for themselves in a case such as this, providing a more fulfilling experience. Chopin comes off in a very narrative, elusive tone throughout the story. There is little deviation from simply supplying the facts. Missing are the usual extensive details and interludes concerning an in-depth analysis of the main character’s feelings. The reader is instead able to finish the story in less than five minutes. Although this might immediately discount the story from even showing up on some critics review lists, it allows for the reader to easily go over the story for multiple interpretations. After a second reading, many of the small details of the story become more relevant and some themes and symbols begin to emerge.
The most obvious symbol which emerges is that of women’s liberation. A quick reading of the text might suggest that Mrs. Mallard was physically abused by her husband, which would explain how she was so quick to recover from the initial shock of his death and begin planning her future. However, subsequent readings will negate this claim and suggest that she was simply mentally oppressed in accordance with societal norms at the time. Mrs. Mallard was confined to the typical housewife mold. Upon hearing the news of her husband’s death, her thoughts almost immediately strayed to those of freedom and liberation from the stranglehold he inadvertently had placed on her. It is doubtful that Mr. Mallard ever meant to intentionally hurt her, as seen when Mrs. Mallard states that she will no doubt cry again at the funeral when she sees “…the face that never looked save with love upon her” (83). This is perhaps the one line which gives insight into the personal lives of the couple. Most likely, they lived in accordance with the social guidelines of the time. Although their wealth is never directly stated, it can be assumed that Mr. Mallard was a man of high status, as they lived in a two story home which was comfortably furnished. It is likely that Kate Chopin sculpted this character with bits and pieces from her own life, as her husband was an aristocrat from New Orleans. This lifestyle provided a comfortable but restrictive daily routine for the women of the time. They were essentially confined to a life at home and their social outings were limited to whatever events their husband attended. Because this was what life was like, the women of the time rarely gave any second thought to what life could be if certain restrictions were loosened. After receiving news of her husband’s death, all of this changed for Mrs. Mallard. An entire life which was previously unavailable suddenly came within reach.
Aside from the primary symbol expressed above, there are also many minor details Chopin includes that are able to add even more substance to the story. From the first line, the main character is referred to as Mrs. Mallard and not by her first name Louise, further stressing the role of the wife in society at the time. Women seldom were able to make a name for themselves independently of men. Men controlled virtually all positions in business, while the women who did work generally did so at menial jobs because they had no husband to support them. Upon hearing of her husband’s terrible death, Mrs. Mallard runs up the stairs and locks herself in her bedroom. This ascent into the upper level in her home can also be seen as a journey into another phase of her life. While in her room, Mrs. Mallard was able to come to the conclusion that, although tragic, this event would serve as her spiritual awakening. She would be able to pursue her own will instead of that of another. The blue sky peeked through the dark clouds in the sky. Again, the lack of further details allows for multiple interpretations of the story. If the storm was moving away, it would imply that Mrs. Mallard’s bright future was beginning to take shape. However, if the storm was moving in, it would imply that Mrs. Mallard’s hopeful dreams were about to be shut down. The end of the story would seem to support the latter claim, unfortunately. During the time spent upstairs, only her sister came up to visit her, symbolizing the fact that her new life will be free of male interference. However, upon returning to the first story with her sister, Mrs. Mallard is shocked to see her husband walk through the front door. Perhaps she came down from her cloud too quickly, for she died on the spot. Although the doctors stated she died of “the joy that kills” (83), the story and its meanings would dictate otherwise.
The Story of an Hour is littered with symbolic meanings. Although the story might seem at first to have multiple interpretations, it becomes clear after a thorough reading that Chopin’s main intent was to stress the dreadful life of women during the time. Upon reviewing both the story and the social context of the late 19th century, it is certain Chopin was writing about an important yet oppressed topic. Chopin would no doubt be happy with the progress women have made in society since her passing.