TITLE: Kate Chopin
By Kimberly Mitchell
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Kate Chopin’s short story, The Story of an Hour, was written in 1894, ten years before her death. The story commences with three individuals gathered in the Mallard residences, Mrs. Mallard, her sister Josephine, and Richard a close friend of Mr. Mallard. Richard has brought the news of Mr. Mallard’s death and Josephine must inform her sister of the tragic news. However, Mrs. Mallard has a heart problem and any dramatic shock could be deadly to her. Josephine, fearing the worst, slowly and tactfully communicates the dreadful news to her sister. Mrs. Mallard instantly reacts to the news with genuine, grief stricken sobs, but her heart apparently never skips a beat.
Recovering from her initial demonstration of grief Mrs. Mallard retreats alone to her room. Locking the door behind her, she slumps encumbered by grief into a comfortable chair in front of an open window. There the sights, sounds, and smells of the newness of a spring day display an inviting scene that reawakens Mrs. Mallard desire for the pleasures that awaited a single unhampered woman. Despite Mrs. Mallard’s efforts to resist the impulse, the realization that she was free sinks in, and eventually the revelation of her new freedom dwarfs the sadness of her husband’s death.
Josephine is alarmed at her sister’s long absence. Thinking that Mrs. Mallard may still be in danger of giving in to uncontrollable grief, Josephine pleads for her to return. Unable to restrain her renewed desire for a long life and overcome with joy of being free from the restraining ties of marriage, Mrs. Mallard, with an air of inner triumph, rejoins her sister and Richard. Josephine tenderly accompanies her sister as they descend the stairs. While standing in front of the door at the base of the stairs Mrs. Mallard, Josephine, and Richard surprisingly notice the door being opened. In steps Mr. Mallard, Josephine screams, Richard vainly tries to shield Mrs. Mallard’s view of her husband. He is too late. Mrs. Mallard falls over dead, as the doctors later said, “Of heart disease – of joy that kills” (Wyrick).
Kate Chopin was born Catherine O’Flaherty in 1850, to a successful father and independent minded French-American mother. In 1855, Kate’s father was killed in an accident. From that point forward Kate’s life’s view would be shaped by the strong willed independent minded women of her family. The year of 1863 was a tragic life influencing year for Kate; her favorite grandmother and her half brother died. (“Literary Criticism” 55).
A new chapter in Kate’s life began in 1870 with her marriage to Oscar Chopin. The Chopin’s had a successful marriage. Oscar allowed Kate the freedom she needed to maintain her strong willed independent spirit. Kate was widowed with six children in 1882. She took over her late husband’s business and was self-supporting for a couple of years. In 1884, Kate returned to St. Lewis to live with her mother. However, Kate’s mother soon died and she was once again forced to care for her children alone (Ker).
Kate’s first literary publication came in 1889 with the poem, If It Might Be. She became increasingly successful as a writer employing her knowledge of Creole culture and beliefs. In her short stories, published and collected in many magazines Kate Chopin established a national reputation as a local-color writer whose charming tales of Louisiana life and culture gained critical acclaim. “ In her first short story, written in 1869, Chopin described a sleek, caged animal “awaking” from the slothful ease of a protected life and escaping into the joys and hardships of independence” (New York Times).
In 1899, she published the novel, “The Awakening” which dealt with the female oppression and a woman’s emotional and sexual needs at a time when neither subject was acknowledged. The novel was provocative and unacceptable in the nineteenth century. Today it is cherished by feminist and considered Chopin’s finest work (Ker). Kate was not a feminist and said so, she saw freedom as much more a matter of spirit, soul, and character of living your life within the constraints that the world makes or your God offers you (Ker). Chopin died in 1904 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
In The Story of an Hour Chopin drew from some of the events of her life and combined them with her perspective on the importance of freedom in a woman’s life. Mrs. Mallard represented a woman who passed up the joy of freedom for the confines of marital bliss. Chopin was not anti-marriage but she would not allow it to stifle her freedom. There is no evidence that Kate was troubled by her marriage and there is no indication that Mrs. Mallard’s marriage was problematic or that she was contemplating life without Mr. Mallard. Chopin’s take on the trite platitude about the relationships between the sexes would have probably read, “You “can” live with them and you “can” live without them.”
The reported cause of Mr. Mallard’s death is clearly a reference to the type of tragedy that killed Kate’s father. Mrs. Mallard’s reaction to the news of her husband’s death could be a reflection of the actual reaction Kate witnessed as a child when her strong-willed mother heard the news of Mr. O’Flaherty’s death. There is also a possibility that the strong and independent minded Kate was describing her own reaction to the news of Oscar’s death.
Kate describes Mrs. Mallard as being uninspired with her life with the comment, “Only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.” Chopin, right or wrong, believed to be happy you must be free to live your life “clearly and fearlessly” (Angelfire.com). Chopin said that Mrs. Mallard at times did not feel love for her husband. The early death of all the men in Kate’s life may have influenced her attitude towards emotional attachments. Love is not a strong trait in her writings. She believed that neither, love, friendship, marriage or children could provide sustainable fulfillment (Anglefire.com).
Chopin’s description of the scene Mrs. Mallard witnesses outside of the window was designed to awaken her to the realization that there was more to life than the confines of her marriage. The following quote of Chopin’s from (Angelfire.com) gives a clear insight into her thoughts dealing with this subject, “Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer; than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.”
Chopin’s philosophy regarding the need of freedom in an individual’s life is demonstrated in the description of Mrs. Mallard’s glee at the sudden discovery of the gift of freedom to live and enjoy life. An explanation of the love and grief mixed with relief and joy, Mrs. Mallard experienced can be found in Peggy Skaggs’s Georgetown University description of Chopin’s attitude towards the sexes, which separates Chopin from the ideology of the feminist, “Men and women alike have great difficulty reconciling their need to live as discrete individuals with their need to live in close relationship with a mate” (Georgetown.edu).
The death of Mrs. Mallard was ironic. Chopin was familiar with the irony of death, for there was irony in the circumstances of her father’s death. The death of Mrs. Mallard was the climax of the story and a necessity for the dramatic conclusion. If Mrs. Mallard was modeled after Chopin’s life experiences, then the similarities break down at this point in the story. Being a master story teller Kate could have drawn from sources outside of her personal history to create the plot and ironic ending of this short story.
Chopin used the third person point of view to convey this short story. Based on the time Chopin resided in New Orleans, and her love of the region’s culture, in all probability, this city was the location of the setting. The social standards and types of infrastructures described in Chopin’s story, along with the date she wrote The Story of an Hour, places the story’s approximate time setting in the 1890s.
The primary character was Mrs. Mallard. The secondary characters were Mrs. Mallard’s sister, Josephine, Mr. Mallard and his friend Richards. The social conflict in the story was based on the expectations of behavior society applied to young widows and Mrs. Mallard’s abandonment of those expectations, This opinion is described in the following quote from the narration “There would be no powerful will bending her in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature” (Wyrick).
The statement “this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back,” contained an incident where Mrs. Mallard faced the conflict between two opposing inner forces, sorrow and joy. Chopin’s theme dealt with the basic human need for freedom in relation to the confinement of social restrictions. The climax was achieved when Mrs. Mallard made the spiritual transformation from grieving widow to liberated woman. Mrs. Mallard’s death brought a resolution to the story.
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