After the story there’s a summary, a look at some themes, and some questions to consider. All of Chopin’s stories, as well as her two novels, are in Kate Chopin: The Complete Novels and Stories.
Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.
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 the 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 keyhold, 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 the 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.
Published: 1894, © Public Domain
Summary of “The Story of an Hour”
Mrs. Mallard, who has heart trouble, is gently given the news that her husband has been killed in a train accident. Her husband’s acquaintance Richards found out at the newspaper office, confirmed the name, and went to her sister Josephine immediately.
Mrs. Mallard weeps wildly and then goes to her room alone. She sits in an armchair, tired, and looks outside at the spring day. She sobs occasionally.
While in a stupor, a thought starts coming to her that makes her afraid. As she identifies it, she tries but fails to push it back.
She lets her guard down, realizes she is free, and relaxes. She knows she’ll be sad at her husband’s funeral, but she looks with hope on all the coming years she’ll have to herself.
She won’t have to consider her husband’s opinion on anything anymore.
Josephine urges Mrs. Mallard, whose name is Louise, to open the door, concerned about her well-being. She stays in her room, her feelings of optimism for the future increasing.
She finally opens the door to her sister. They walk downstairs together with Louise feeling triumphant. Richards stands waiting for them at the bottom.
Mr. Mallard walks through the front door. He hadn’t been at the scene of the accident, and didn’t even know there had been one. Josephine cries out. Richards tries to shield him from his wife’s view.
The doctors say Mrs. Mallard died “of joy that kills”.
Theme: Women’s Freedom in Marriage
This theme has to be examined in the context of when it was written. It was before women had the right to vote, and when being a devoted wife and mother was the feminine ideal.
The sensation that creeps up on Louise after processing her husband’s death is one of freedom. The freedom she feels here isn’t relief because her husband mistreated her, as his face “had never looked save with love upon her.” It’s simply that she’s no longer subject to a “powerful will bending hers”.
Whereas before, Louise shuddered at the thought of a long life of subjection, now she anticipates “all sorts of days that would be her own.”
Indeed, the joy that Louise feels over this freedom is so strong that the sudden loss of it, seeing her husband walk through the door, is too much for her heart—figuratively and literally—to take. Ultimately, she exchanges her imaged freedom for the freedom offered by death. After experiencing freedom, she can’t go back to the way things were.
Additionally, Mrs. Mallard is first identified as a wife. We don’t know her as Louise until later (see question #2 below), implying that her role as a wife subsumes everything else about her.
Theme: Death as a Release
The socially acceptable way to react to death is with grief and only grief. As with the previous theme, this is less pronounced today, but still applicable.
Louise is genuinely saddened by her husband’s death, and she shows this openly. However, the experience of her fancy running riot over her newfound freedom happens completely in private.
When Josephine is concerned that Louise is making herself ill, she only replies that she’s not doing that. Understandably, she doesn’t say anything about feeling happy or relieved.
This theme is felt by the reader emotionally more so than intellectually. Some will find they automatically make a negative judgment on Louise based on her reaction. Some will take the view that this is a complex situation and that both of her emotional reactions are understandable.
1. What is represented by the spring day that Louise observes?
The spring scene she sees represents the change that’s just about to happen inside her and its eventual completion.
After retiring to her room, Mrs. Mallard looks out the window and sees “the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life.” Shortly after, she is literally aquiver herself when she realizes she’s free—“her bosom rose and fell tumultuously” and “Her pulses beat fast”. Just as the growth of spring ends with it settling in its mature state, Mrs. Mallard’s experience culminates as her “coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.”
While Mrs. Mallard is dealing with a death, she witnesses things that indicate life—“The delicious breath of rain” (she’s getting a taste of her new life after an experience that will make her grow), “a peddler was crying his wares” (an active cry to make a living, unlike the passive crying over a death), and the sounds of song and birds.
Her observation ends with “patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds”. Likewise, Mrs. Mallard’s blue sky—her new freedom—is beginning to show through her clouds—her temporary sadness.
2. What is the significance of finding out Mrs. Mallard’s first name late in the story?
This identifies the turning point in her attitude. She’s now completely receptive to the idea of living for herself.
We don’t find out her name is Louise until about 3/4 of the way through when Josephine is begging her to come out of her room. It’s significant that this is after she’s fully accepted her new freedom, when she’s “drinking in a very elixir of life” and “her fancy was running riot”. Now she’s Louise, an independent person, not Mrs. Mallard, a submissive wife.
3. What are some examples of irony?
Josephine is concerned that Louise is making herself ill, but we know that she feels better at that moment than she has in a long time, maybe ever.
The doctor’s stated cause of Louise’s death, “the joy that kills” was more likely a shocking disappointment that killed. She was joyful before her husband walked in, not after.
There are other things that are only ironic later on:
- Everyone’s concern over breaking the sad news as gently as possible when she takes it very well
- All of Louise’s thoughts of being free and living for herself are an illusion—her husband is alive the whole time
- She descends the stairs feeling triumphant and victorious only to die seconds later