What’s Love Got To Do With It?: “The Story of an Hour” and the Servitude of Marriage

“The Story of an Hour” is an excellent example of the idea that you don’t need to be wordy to get your message across. This succinct little story critiques the state of marriage in the late 19th century, showing the detrimental effects of power imbalance in relationships. Upon receiving news that her husband is probably dead from a railroad accident, Louise Mallard locks herself in a room where she doesn’t cry from grief, but exalts in the idea that she is finally free of the ol’ ball and chain. At the time, women were meant to be the “angel of the household.” In marriage, you are expected to become a domestic goddess, staying virtuous and in the kitchen. It was also very fashionable for women to be considered frail or delicate, and if they were rich enough, should busy themselves with sewing, music, or drawing, letting the servants do all the work, lest it strain their poor, hysteric nerves. Chopin is speaking out against this mentality, driving home the message that emancipation is preferable to staying in a stifling marriage. I wanted to offer a quick analysis of major themes and symbols in the text within this entry. If you haven’t read the story already, it is only 3 pages long, and you can access it here.

Beautiful Salvador Dali painting. Seemed appropriate!

Beautiful Salvador Dali painting. Seemed appropriate!

Chopin is not really subtle when it comes to the symbolism of the story (but we will give her a break because thestory is only three pages long). Upon hearing that her husband is probably dead, Louise closets herself away in the upstairs bedroom. You might think that confinement is a bad thing, but in this scenario, her locking herself away is an act of autonomy. While closed away in the room she is “drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window.”[i] Having the room to herself allows her to imagine her life without her husband and she comes to realize that “possession of self-assertion…[is] the strongest impulse of her being.”[ii] Chopin shows through Louise’s musings that marriage where one person has more control than the other can make it harder for couples to love each other, because even though Louise feels for her husband, her desire for freedom is stronger. She has that “room of one’s own” that Virginia Woolf is so on about, a room for her to contemplate potentials of independence. While in the room she faces an “open window,” out of which she can see an “open square…the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life.”[iii] So, within one sentence we have the repetition of the word “open,” which implies freedom, and a window that also implies both freedom and new beginnings. Adding to this is the natural imagery of rebirth and fresh life of spring. By looking out the window, Louise is able to use her imagination to think of how wonderful her life will be if her husband is dead. It is while looking out the window that she realizes she is “Body and soul free!”[iv] Using her imagination allows her to become a “goddess of Victory”[v] as she ascends downstairs, ready to play the part of the grieving widow. But her descent from the upstairs bedroom becomes a descent into marital servitude once more because her husband walks through the door, completely unharmed from the railway accident.

I find it amusing that Louise Mallard is afflicted with “heart trouble”[vi] as it is simultaneously a nod towards the frail woman stereotype of the 19th century and an indication that Louise has marriage troubles. Josephine and Richards treat Louise like a breakable thing, understandable considering that finding out your husband is dead is shocking news, but also emphasizes the idea that Louise has no power or autonomy in her marriage. Everyone is walking on eggshells around her, worried that she might have a breakdown. Her death then is darkly humorous, dramatic irony at its finest, as the heart disease Louise dies from is interpreted as “joy that kills”[vii] of her husband being found alive, when really it is despair that she is still trapped in marriage.

Although Chopin was writing in the 19th century, I think “The Story of an Hour” is still relevant today. Who hasn’t at some point in a marriage or relationship felt stifled by the other person, even though you care for them? Not only does this story provide social commentary on women’s position in marriage, but subtly jabs at monogamy in general. I don’t want you walking away from this interpreting this story as anti-marriage though; first and foremost, this is a story about power imbalance, and indicates the importance of female independence. Without a separate identity from her husband, Louise has become so frustrated that it has impacted her ability to actually appreciate love or affection in the relationship. Louise acknowledges that her husband had a “face that had never looked save with love upon her”[viii] and yet is so excited that she won’t have to see that face again. Overall, this darkly humorous tale traces within a short period of time the exciting prospect of freedom that can come with the death of a husband, a freedom that within a good marriage should already be there, as Chopin so clearly believes.

[i] Ibid, 2.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid, 1.

[iv] Ibid, 2.

[v] Ibid, 3.

[vi] Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.” 1894. Web. http://my.hrw.com/support/hos/hostpdf/host_text_219.pdf, 1.

[vii] Ibid, 3.

[viii] Ibid, 2.

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