A Critical Analysis of
Kate Chopin’s Short Story
The Story of an Hour
( read the story )
by Thomas Jay Rush
Ms. Chopin’s short story The Story of an Hour was first published in Vogue Magazine on December 6, 1894. Originally titled The Dream of an Hour the story has been widely anthologized. The story may be one of Ms. Chopin’s most popular. After her death in August of 1904, Ms. Chopin’s stories and books fell into obscurity. By the 1960’s and 1970’s however Ms. Chopin’s work experienced a resurrection, being recognized by some as “…one of feminism’s sacred texts…” (Susan Cahill, 1975). Today her stories, this one in particular, are recognized as powerful early expressions of the true feelings women of the time.
Early in this story, Mrs. Mallard, the lead protagonist, learns of her husband’s death in a train accident. A family friend, Richards, who apparently works with Mr. Mallard learns of the accident “at the newspaper”, hinting that Mr. Mallard owns the paper. The story says Mr. Mallard’s name “lead the list” of those who were killed, reinforcing his important social position.
When she first learns of the death Mrs. Mallard is crushed by the news. She sobs on her sister’s shoulder. Retiring to her room she finds a “comfortable” seat near the window. Looking onto the scene outside her window she sees sparrows twittering in the eaves, she sees the treetops in the square across the street “aquiver with the new spring life”, she smells the “delicious breath of rain….in the air”. Unusual things, I think, for the recently bereaved to notice.
The word choices the author makes in describing Mrs. Mallard’s reaction to the death are very unexpected. Initially the reader is lead to believe that Mrs. Mallard is distraught, however the word choice belies a different reality. The words have an optimistic air, reminding one of freshness and spring, not things normally associated with a recent death.
A feeling comes over Mrs. Mallard that she cannot resist. We see her sitting in her comfortable chair, looking out the window at the pretty sights and we are told that she is holding something back. We are led to believe this something is an outbreak of sorrow, however in a very effective passage, the author teases us, and then finally reveals that Mrs. Mallard is happy. The author says “There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully.“ Why fearfully? What is coming?
We soon learn that what is coming is an overwhelming feeling of joy at the death of her husband. She is fearful of what others might think of her, as the author may have been as she wrote those lines. In 1894, a story of a happy widow, one who feels “free, free, free!“ might be somewhat shocking to the reading public. Some researches believe that the obscurity that Ms. Chopin’s work fell into was this resistance to the idea of a women, a married women, having her own feelings outside of her husband.
In the end we learn that Mr. Mallard is not dead. As Mrs. Mallard is descending the stairway, after having been convinced by her sister to come downstairs, Mr. Mallard surprisingly opens the front door. Unaware that there has even been an accident he knows nothing of what’s going on.
His family friend, Mr. Richards, is apparently aware of the feelings that Mrs. Mallard is feeling because he tries to hide her from Mr. Mallard – to no good effect.
In a stunning shock of irony, Mrs. Mallard, whom, in the first sentence of the story we are told, has a heart condition, succumbs to the shock of her’s husband’s continued life and dies on the steps.
I think the story is OK. I do not think it is an excellent story. I found the depth of the woman’s exultation at the death of her husband to be a bit overblown. The husband is described as having “kind, tender hands” and having “never looked save with love upon her”. I found it a little bit hard to understand why she was so overjoyed if he was such a decent guy. Her exultation at his death is more indicative of someone being abused. I feel that it is possible that Ms. Chopin, the author, chickened out. Didn’t have the bravery to actually describe the man as he really was. The wife’s exultation at his death did not coincide with the way Mr. Mallard is described.
Another thing about this story that I find a as a shortcoming is the ironic ending. I am not sure about this but I think that short stories of the time were more formulaic. An ironic ending may have been an expected part of a short story. I think the story may have been better if Mrs. Mallard hadn’t died. Her death doesn’t add anything to the story. Death is bad outcome for her – don’t get me wrong – but it seems to me that worse outcome would have been if he had said “Why is dinner not ready?” when he came home.
I think it’s a good story – not a great story. Its so short that there is not a lot of opportunity to fully describe all the characters, nor the setting. I would have liked to have just a bit more information about Mr. Mallard. What level of society did the family exist in? Was the author saying something about all women of the time or just women of a certain socio-economic strata? I also felt that the irony was a bit too cute.