Marital relationships were highly patriarchal in the 19th century, but little is known about married women’s experiences. In her “The Story of an Hour,” written in 1894, Kate Chopin sheds light on this issue and expresses her distaste for the institution of marriage. While she does acknowledge the few moments of joy or love shared between spouses, Chopin primarily highlights the tendency of marriage in a patriarchal society to restrict women’s liberty significantly. Essentially, Chopin considers marriage to be a form of bondage, which explains the abundant relief and sense of freedom that Mrs. Mallard has when she learns that she is free from her husband. Through characterization, irony, and point of view, Chopin shows how marriage is a tool of women’s oppression and bondage.
Chopin’s direct and indirect characterization of Mrs. Mallard paints her as a woman who has been oppressed in her marriage. The direct characterization of Mrs. Mallard in this story occurs mainly through the narrator’s descriptions about her to the audience. For example, when describing her physical appearance, the narrator says, “She was young, with a fair, and calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength” (Chopin 420). It implies that Mrs. Mallard is accustomed to repressing her true thoughts and feelings, perhaps, in order to conform to the image of wife accepted in society at that time. Through this description, the author alludes to the idea that Mrs. Mallard has felt oppressed for so long that repressing her feelings has become part of her nature and has manifested itself in her physical appearance. This idea is further explored through her poor health. At the beginning of the story, the narrator informs the audience that Mrs. Mallard has heart problems. Her condition symbolizes the high level of pain and exhaustion which she has had to bear within her marriage. On the other hand, Chopin uses indirect characterization to subtly show the audience what marriage had taken away from Mrs. Mallard. Mrs. Mallard’s thought process and speech show how happy she feels when she believes that she is free from the chains of her marriage. The narrator says, “she said it over and over under her breath: ‘free, free, free!’ The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed her went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing of blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body” (420). The change in her look as described by the narrator downplays Mrs. Mallard’s thought process. She has a look of terror because she is afraid of admitting that she is glad her husband is dead. This characterization shows the hold which the marriage had on Mrs. Mallard’s soul and body. When she thinks that Mr. Mallard is gone, she grows bright, and her body becomes relaxed. Voicing her thoughts, the narrator says, “There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself” (421). Mrs. Mallard’s joy is uncontrollable because she has the freedom to live how she sees fit.
Through irony, Chopin shows the hold that patriarchal beliefs have on the minds of people in society. Chopin demonstrates how men and women have grown blind to the oppressiveness of marriage. When Mrs. Mallard locks herself in her room, Josephine is worried that she might harm herself because of grief. Josephine’s reaction is ironic given that the narrator says, “She was drinking the elixir of life through that open window” (421). In this example, Chopin uses dramatic irony since there is a discrepancy between Josephine’s perception of Mrs. Mallard’s state and Mrs. Mallard’s actual experiences. Mrs. Mallard feels more alive than she has felt in a long time because of her husband’s alleged demise, which shows that even her sister did not understand the pain she felt while being married. This idea is seen again as the story comes to an end and Mrs. Mallard succumbs to a heart attack. When describing this situation, Chopin uses verbal irony by stating that Mrs. Mallard “had died of joy that kills” (421). This phrase implies that, from the other characters’ perspective, the woman was so happy to see her husband alive that her heart did not withstand this joy. However, in fact, it was the fear of returning to the chains of marriage that caused Mrs. Mallard’s heart to stop. The discrepancy between other people’s expectations and Mrs. Mallard’s actual feelings shows society’s ignorance of the plight of women in marriage.
Chopin’s chosen point of view helps the audience see the nature of social relationships in the 19th century and objectively observe the woman’s attitude toward her marriage. In “The Story of an Hour,” Chopin uses a third-person limited point of view. It means that the narrator’s knowledge is restricted to the feelings and actions of Mrs. Mallard, while the inner experiences of other characters are unknown. The use of a third-person point of view contributes to the objectivity of the narration since the audience learns details that Mrs. Mallard herself would not admit. For example, the narrator says, “She did not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her” (420). It means that Mrs. Mallard’s joy was so intense that she did not question its appropriateness. With first-person narration, the audience would be unlikely to learn such details about Mrs. Mallard’s feelings. Additionally, since the narrator’s knowledge is limited to Mrs. Mallard, the theme of marital oppression remains clear and prominent. Thus, the third-person limited point of view helped Chopin convey the psychological burden of marriage on women in the 19th century.
Chopin utilizes various elements of fiction in “The Story of an Hour,” including characterization, irony, and point of view, to show how women in the 19th century often felt trapped in their marriages. She expresses her argument by highlighting Mrs. Mallard’s relief about her newfound freedom and the blindness of the men and women in her life to her oppression. Even though Chopin’s opinion comes from analyzing marriage in the nineteenth century, it remains relevant to many marriages today where patriarchal beliefs hinder women from living their lives freely. Perhaps, given a chance, they too would experience Mrs. Mallard’s monstrous joy that she felt when she was free from her husband.
Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, edited by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, 6th ed., HarperCollins College Publishers, 1995, pp. 419-421.