The Love and Joy That Kill: Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"
Kate Chopin was a writer who was all but lost to the literary canon until her re-emergence and reclassification as a writer of importance starting in the 1980s.
Though her works were written and published at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th, her writing is surprisingly fresh and edgy.
Kate Chopin (pronounced like the composer "Show---pan") has a modest canon of work with her most well-known piece being "The Awakening."
But many of her short stories also deal with similar themes of feminism, feminine strength and candor. She dares to suggest that there is more to a woman than the role of a wife and mother.
In the opening of the story, Chopin lets the reader know that Mrs. Mallard suffers from "heart trouble" and so, with that in mind, her sister Josephine and family friend Richards decide to tell her about her husband's death in the most gentle way possible.
Mr. Mallard was listed in the newspaper as having been killed in a train wreck earlier that day.
Mrs. Mallard immediately started crying and then excused herself to her room.
As she is in her room, she begins to realize that what she feels is not a paralyzing grief---the emotion she is supposed to have. Instead, she feels freedom.
She repeats to herself over and over again "Free, free, free."
Mrs. Mallard realizes that she loved her husband but it was oppressive to be a wife. She had no will of her own. She lived for someone else. Now that her husband is dead, she can live for herself.
Her sister comes to check on her but she assures her that she is fine. Chopin notes:
After an hour, Mrs. Mallard opens the door to her room and starts walking down the stairs with her sister.
As she is coming down the stairs, the front door at the bottom opens.
Brentley Mallard enters the house, unaware that there has even been a train accident or that he was listed among those killed.
The sister screams and Richards tries to shield Mrs. Mallard but it is too late.
Chopin notes that the doctors indicated "she had died of heart disease--of joy that kills."
The Joy That Kills
That last line leaves readers unfamiliar with Kate Chopin's work puzzled. What do they mean that she died from "the joy that kills?"
To understand the line, you have to understand that you are working with two different perspectives in the story---what the reader knows and what the characters know.
Because the characters are working with limited information, they make assumptions that the reader knows are false.
What The Characters Know
The reader comes to the story from a place of privilege. So let's talk about what he characters know, first.
Richards and Josephine tell Mrs. Mallard the news, witness her crying and then witness her going into her room and locking the door for an hour.
They then see an emotionally worn out woman emerge from the room, walk down the stairs, see her husband coming through the door, and then drop dead from the shock.
It is only natural then that they make assumptions based both on what they witnessed and what they assume the natural feelings of a wife are supposed to be.
Those assumptions include:
- That she loves her husband.
- That she feels lost without him.
- That she is so happy to see him that the shock is more than her heart can take.
And these are all fair assumptions to make based on the time period (the story was published in 1894) and the role of a woman.
How else could a woman exist and be understood except in her role of wife and then mother? Even Chopin refers to her as only Mrs. Mallard---an intentional naming to show her identity is that of her married name and her role of "Mrs."
It was a woman's duty to love her husband and devote her life to him. So the assumption of grief and fear at her widow status is a fair one.
And then, knowing that she has a weak heart, both the sister and the friend can only assume that the sheer joy of her seeing her husband alive after all is too much for her body.
But we, as the readers, are in a place of privilege. And we know the truth.
What The Readers Know
One of the fun aspects of literature and narrative privilege is that sometimes the reader is privy to information that the characters in the story don't have.
Only the reader gets to go into the room with Mrs. Mallard as she sits in there and realizes that instead of feeling sad, she feels happy that she has gained freedom. That she doesn't have to do anything she doesn't want to and that she is now not defined only by her role as a wife to Mr. Mallard is the main thought going through her head at that moment.
But she also realizes that these thoughts are not how she is "supposed" to feel so she composes herself as she meets her sister once again and tries to restrain her feelings.
So as the reader, and with that information, we realize that it is not joy that kills Mrs. Mallard but rather, disappointment.
With the turning of the key, she moves from a place of hope, joy and freedom back to the same life of unrealized dreams and a dreary fate. And that is the thought that is too much to bear.
And that is what actually kills her.
Short and Powerful
This one thousand word story certainly shows that a writer must not be wordy or long to get across important points and ideas.
Chopin showed the trappings of marriage, women's lack of choices in society and explored the idea of a woman desiring to be her own person and make her own way, outside of the confines of marriage.
But Chopin also plays with her reader by never giving us her character's actual name. For she is always trapped in her marriage and her identity is forever that of Mrs. Mallard---the wife that was almost free.