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Dec 23, 2009

Quick takes on Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"

In beginning to understand this story, I'd like to follow a two-pronged reading approach. The first prong of attack is to read the story for a basic understanding of its characters, plot, setting, and time frame. After you have the basic gist of what is happening, you move to the second prong: exploring how the story is told, why the story is written the way it is written, and how the story's elements relate to themes, ideas, emotions, history, and other disciplines.

Who? Characters central and peripheral to the story
Mrs. Louise Mallard : a wife, young, "with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength" she also has "heart trouble". We will come back to Mrs. Mallard, for she is the central character in the story.

Mr. Brently Mallard: husband of Louise. What do we know about him? not much….

Josephine: Louise's sister. what is her role in the story? she breaks the news of Brently's death to Mrs. Mallard.

Richards: Brently's friend. He is the first to learn the news of Brently's death, and rushes to the Mallard home to tell them.

Doctors: arrive at the end of the story.

Where does the story take place? 
We do not know. it is near a railroad, it is in some sort of town with an open square. setting is relatively unimportant to this story.

When?
The exact year is not known. We can use the publication date as evidence (1891). We also see mention of a telegram and railroads, which fits with the late 19th century. So it's safe to assume that the story takes place contemporaneous to when it was written.

Although we do not know the year with absolute certainty, we do know what season it is – spring. See paragraph 5. Does the spring season have any formal importance in the story? Yes – it affects Mrs. Mallard's mood. 

Also note, that the story's timeframe takes place in the space of one hour.

What happens? 
News comes of a railroad disaster.
Brently Mallard has been listed as one of those killed.
Richards rushes to the Mallard home to deliver the news.
Josephine, the sister, actually tells Louise (with great care to avoid heart trouble).
We watch Louise's reactions to the news – both her outward expression of shock and grief and her inner thoughts and feelings.
First she weeps, then she removes herself to her room, where she sits in an armchair facing an open window. Her sobs give way to intelligent reflection.
She begins to feel unexpectedly "free", an almost joyous feeling. She welcomes the future and feels liberated by the tragedy.
Louise's sister begs her to open the door. Louise finally does open the door.
She descends the stairs.
Suddenly (our surprise twist), Brently (who has not died in fact) comes through the front door.
Louise, on seeing him, she dies.
The doctors come and declare her dead of heart disease "of joy that kills."

How is the story told? Who tells it?
It's a third person narrator, whose perspective is limited (or is limited in the way the action is unfolded for the reader). The perspective is kept primarily oriented towards Louise – her conscious thoughts.

How told? Actions are revealed in their order of occurrence as they are witnessed by the characters. (As reader, you only see what the characters see). We have no foreknowledge that Brently survived the railroad disaster.

What's the effect of this method of story telling? Well for one, we instantly sympathize with Louise. We have no reason to believe the news of her husband's death is false.

First we pity her, then we feel with her, then we watch her complicated reaction to the news, and as we watch that, we gather more details about her marriage and how Louise saw herself existing in that marriage. She perceives herself as being subjugated.

The narrator of the story also provides a double-edged surprise twist at the end. Husband is not dead, and his arrival home causes the death of the wife.

All her freedom, the life she thinks she has, is snatched away. twists of fate and shocks such as this are not always what they appear to be.

In light of the ending, we can reread certain passages to find double meanings. For instance, look at paragraphs 9 and 10. What is it that is approaching her? Freedom?  Brently? Something else?

Discussion Questions:

Is Louise a sympathetic character? did your sympathy change for her while reading the story?

Do you disapprove of Louise's response to the news? Is Louise a sympathetic character? did your sympathy change for her while reading the story?

Are her feelings justifiable? Should feelings be justifiable?

What kind of marriage do you imagine these two have? 

What is approaching her in the bedroom as she stares out the window and why is she so afraid of it? In light of the ending, we can reread certain passages to find double meanings. for instance, look at paragraphs 9 and 10. what is it that is approaching her? freedom or Brently or something else?

Does Louise experience an epiphany?

In a marriage, which is more important, love or independence? (Is indpendence is a prerequisite to true love?)

How old is Mrs. Mallard? How does Chopin make  her seem older than she really is?

Consider the setting (springtime) how might this relate to what Louise is going through at the time? Does the spring season have any formal importance in the story? Yes – it affects Mrs. Mallard's mood. How so? 

Also note, that the story's timeframe takes place in the space of one hour. Also important. Why? Because this rupture in her life has opened a window of opportunity that didn't exist before. What opens up for the brief space of one hour? The whole rest of her life!

Did the ending surprise you? shock you? outrage you? Do you think Kate Chopin is punishing her character via the surprise ending? Why would an author do that?

On re-reading, what evidence can you find that prepares you for the ending? Did Chopin merely "trick us", or are there clues that can be reinterpreted as hints to the eventual outcome?  cf. paras. 2, 9, 10.

In one sense, the story is about expectations, assumptions, and reactions. Do you always react to news as expected, or in the conventional way? Louise does not. This makes her an interesting, complex character worthy of study. It gives her character dimension, depth. We assume that wives should grieve their husbands when they die suddenly like this. As outsiders looking in, we do not expect that news of someone's death can in any way bring about feelings of liberation and joy. If we were to put ourselves in her shoes, we may not expect to react in the same way. In fact, does Louise expect to react that way herself? Is she not surprised by the onset of her liberated feelings? And yet she does feel that, and people do react in unpredictable ways, not only in fictional stories.

The story is also about the situation of married women in late 19th century America. Remember, this was the Victorian period. Women did not have the freedom they have today in this country. They were repressed – sexually, socially, at the mercy of their husbands' power. This led to feelings of suffocation, subjugation, being prone to the imposition of private will (cf. paragraph 12).

Brantly's death has awakened in Louise an awareness of "the possession of self assertion, which she recognized as the strongest impulse of her being." For a few minutes, a few moments, Louise is able to feel this sense of free will, then it is snatched away by the very news that should bring her joy from the depths of sorrow — a fine example of literary irony. 

Irony:
(1)A figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.

(2)A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things.