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Analysis, Themes and Summary of "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin

Themes and meanings in "The Story of an Hour."

Themes and meanings in "The Story of an Hour."

"The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin is one of the most frequently anthologized short stories. At just over 1,000 words, it's a very quick read. Despite its brevity, there's a lot of meaning to uncover.

This article includes a summary, as well as a look at themes, symbolism and irony.

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.

— "The Story of an Hour"

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 friend 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.”

But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely.

— "The Story of an Hour"

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.

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.

She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will . . .

— "The Story of an Hour"

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 symbolized by the spring day that Mrs. Mallard observes?

The spring scene she sees symbolizes the change that’s 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), “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 almost three quarters of the way through the story, 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 in her room, but we know that she feels better at that moment than she has 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 closer to joyful before her husband walked in, not after.

There are other things that are only ironic in hindsight, such as:

  • Everyone’s concern over breaking the sad news as gently as possible when Louise takes it very well.
  • All of Louise’s thoughts of being free and living for herself were an illusion—her husband was alive the whole time.
  • How Louise descends the stairs feeling triumphant and victorious only to die seconds later.

When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills.

— "The Story of an Hour"