By Kate Chopin (1851-1904)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
Revised in 2010 ©
Type of Work
"The Story of an Hour" is a short story centering on a young married woman of the late nineteenth century as she reacts to a report that her husband has died in a train accident.
Vogue magazine first published "The Story of an Hour" in its issue of December 6, 1894, under the title "The Dream of an Hour." On January 5, 1895, Sue V. Moore, a journalist friend of Chopin, reprinted the story in St. Louis Life, a newspaper of which Moore was editor. Over the years, it was republished again and again in literature anthologies under the title "The Story of an Hour."
The action takes place in a single hour in an American home in the last decade of the nineteenth Century.
Observance of the Unities
The story observes the classical unities of time, place, and action. These unities dictate that the events in a short story should take place (1) in a single day and (2) in a single location as part of (3) a single story line with no subplots. French classical writers, interpreting guidelines established by Aristotle for stage dramas, formulated the unities. Over the centuries, many writers began to ignore them, but many playwrights and authors of short stories continued to use them.
Louise Mallard: Young, attractive woman who
mourns the reported death
of her husband but exults in the freedom she will
enjoy in the years to
Society in late nineteenth century expected women to keep house, cook, bear and rear children—but little more. Despite efforts of women’s-rights activists such as Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, women still had not received the right to vote in national elections by the century’s end. Moreover, employers generally discriminated against women by hiring them for menial jobs only and paying them less than men for the same work. The Story of an Hour hints that Mrs. Mallard’s husband—perhaps a typical husband of his day—dominated his wife.
Mallard appears to have been a weak-willed woman,
one who probably repressed
her desire to control her destiny. Consequently,
during her marriage, she
suffered constant stress that may well have caused
or contributed to her
"heart trouble," referred to in the first sentence
of the story.
Examples of symbols in the story are the following:
Patches of Blue Sky (Paragraph 6): Emergence of her new life.
Revealed in half-concealing (Paragraph 2): Paradox
Storm of grief (Paragraph 3): Metaphor
Physical exhaustion that haunted her body (Paragraph 4): Metaphor/Personification
Breath of rain (Paragraph 5): Metaphor
Song which someone was singing (Paragraph 5): Alliteration
Clouds that had met (Paragraph 6): Metaphor/Personification
The sounds, the scents (Paragraph 9): Alliteration
Thing that was approaching to possess her (Paragraph 10): Metaphor/Personification
Monstrous joy (Paragraph 12): Oxymoron
She carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory (Paragraph 20): Simile
Joy that kills (Paragraph 23): Paradox. The phrase is also ironic, since the doctors mistakenly believe that Mrs. Mallard was happy to see her husband alive.
Not until Paragraph 16 does the reader learn the protagonist’s first name, Louise. Why the author delayed revealing her given name is open to speculation. I believe the author did so to suggest that the young woman lacked individuality and identity until her husband’s reported death liberated her. Before that time, she was merely Mrs. Brently Mallard, an appendage grafted onto her husband’s identity. While undergoing her personal renaissance alone in her room, she regains her own identity. It is at this time that her sister, Josephine, calls out, “Louise, open the door!” However, there is irony in Mrs. Mallard’s first name: Louise is the feminine form of the masculine Louis. So even when Mrs. Mallard takes back her identity, it is in part a male identity. (Michael J. Cummings, Cummings Study Guides)
The opening sentence of the story foreshadows the ending—or at least hints that Mrs. Mallard’s heart condition will affect the outcome of the story. Morever, this sentence also makes the ending believable. Without an early reference to her heart ailment, the ending would seem implausible and contrived.
Mrs. Mallard's Heart Condition
As the story unfolds, the reader discovers that Mrs. Mallard’s heart ailment may have resulted—in part, at least—from the stress caused by her reaction to her inferior status in a male-dominated culture and to a less-than-ideal marriage. For example, in paragraph 8, Chopin says the young woman’s face “bespoke repression”; in paragraph 14, the author tells us that a “powerful will” was “bending" Mrs. Mallard. Finally, in paragraph 15, Chopin notes: “Often she had not” loved her husband.
Kate Chopin (1851-1904) is best known for her short stories (more than 100) and a novel, The Awakening. One of her recurring themes—the problems facing women in a society that repressed them—made her literary works highly popular in the late twentieth century. They remain popular today.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
The Story of an Hour
By Kate Chopin
,,,,,,,It was her sister Josephine who told her, in broken sentences; veiled hints that revealed in half concealing. Her husband's friend Richards was there, too, near her. It was he who had been in the newspaper office when intelligence of the railroad disaster was received, with Brently Mallard's name leading the list of "killed." He had only taken the time to assure himself of its truth by a second telegram, and had hastened to forestall any less careful, less tender friend in bearing the sad message.
,,,,,,,She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her.
,,,,,,,There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.
,,,,,,,She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.
,,,,,,,There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled one above the other in the west facing her window.
,,,,,,,She sat with her head thrown back upon the cushion of the chair, quite motionless, except when a sob came up into her throat and shook her, as a child who has cried itself to sleep continues to sob in its dreams.
,,,,,,,She was young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength. But now there was a dull stare in her eyes, whose gaze was fixed away off yonder on one of those patches of blue sky. It was not a glance of reflection, but rather indicated a suspension of intelligent thought.
,,,,,,,There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.
,,,,,,,Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will—as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been.
,,,,,,,When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: "free, free, free!" The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.
,,,,,,,She did not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her. A clear and exalted perception enabled her to dismiss the suggestion as trivial.
,,,,,,,She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead. But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome.
,,,,,,,There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.
,,,,,,,And yet she had loved him—sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter! What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!
,,,,,,,"Free! Body and soul free!" she kept whispering.
,,,,,,,Josephine was kneeling before the closed door with her lips to the keyhole, imploring for admission. "Louise, open the door! I beg, open the door—you will make yourself ill. What are you doing Louise? For heaven's sake open the door."
,,,,,,,"Go away. I am not making myself ill." No; she was drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window.
,,,,,,,Her fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her. Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.
,,,,,,,She arose at length and opened the door to her sister's importunities. There was a feverish triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory. She clasped her sister's waist, and together they descended the stairs. Richards stood waiting for them at the bottom.
,,,,,,,Some one was opening the front door with a latchkey. It was Brently Mallard who entered, a little travel-stained, composedly carrying his grip-sack and umbrella. He had been far from the scene of accident, and did not even know there had been one. He stood amazed at Josephine's piercing cry; at Richards' quick motion to screen him from the view of his wife.
,,,,,,,But Richards was too late.
,,,,,,,When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills.