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‘Story of an Hour;’ Literary Critique
by Alex Craig, Yahoo Contributor Network
April 22, 2012

Kate Chopin’s short piece, “The Story of an Hour,” is about a sickly wife who briefly believes her husband is dead and imagines a whole new life of freedom for her. And then… Well, I’m not going to spoil the ending for you here. In this piece, the main character, Mrs. Mallard, has lost herself. That’s why, even in the midst of her grief over her husband’s death, she can’t stop thinking about the potential such a sad event has to change her life in a positive way. It’s not even the idea that her husband was mean to her, because he sounds nice; it’s the concept that being tied to another person, no matter how great or awful he is, keeps you from being yourself. So what are we supposed to think? Does “The Story of an Hour” suggest that it’s impossible to be tied down, or that we can’t really be ourselves for long? But if you’re not attached to anyone, there’s nobody to share your experience with. So what’s more important, attachment or freedom? Is it ever possible to have both?

In “The Story of an Hour”, there are plenty of literary elements that effect the short piece, such as symbolism. Like the fact that Mrs. Mallard has “heart trouble” one should be taken as more meaningful than just the idea that she’s unhealthy. If that were true, she could have ulcers or be allergic to pineapples. But no. Of all the potential illnesses she could have, she has problems with her heart. Sure, it’s a polite way of describing her condition, but it also reinforces the “trouble” Mrs. Mallard is having with her “heart” within her marriage. Then after she finds out about her husband’s “death.”

The narrator quotes, “she carried herself unwittingly like a Goddess of Victory.” Symbolizing her victory, her triumph of outliving the very man who imprisoned her. It seems as though death is determined to take one of the Mallards’ lives that day, and it just ends up taking a different one than was originally thought. Or, in a more sinister approach, perhaps it would always have been Mrs. Mallard’s fate to receive this kind of particular shock, in order to succumb to her own death; which, granted, the other characters seemed more prepared for.

Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice, and you’ve got yourself a plot. The conflict is that Mr. Mallard dies, and Mrs. Mallards’ friends and family must break the news to her gently, because of her heart trouble. The complication is Mrs. Mallard mourning and trying to deal with her unusual feelings. When Mrs. Mallard declares she’s finally free, is the climax of the story. “She said it over and over under her breath: “free, free, free!” Then all of a sudden, the suspense begins to creep in, when Louise meets with her sister, and they go downstairs. And finally, Mr. Mallard walks in, surprisingly alive, and Louise feels her entire life shut down before her, and dies; “of the joy that kills.”

As for characterization, Mrs. Louise Mallard is the character we know the most about by far. Of course, that’s not saying much. She’s the protagonist, the center of attention, and the person around whom all the other characters revolve. At the beginning of the story, when Mr. Mallard dies, the other characters (Richards and Josephine) put aside their personal grief to console Mrs. Mallard. Their first priority is taking care of her, making sure she gets through the hard news without dying herself, because she is inflicted with “heart trouble.”

The narrator describes her, physically, as “young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength” As for Brently Mallard, for much of the story we think Mr. Mallard is dead. He doesn’t appear in person until the end, and even then we don’t know that much about him. Instead, we learn more about Mr. Mallard from the reactions of other people to his supposed death. We don’t know his profession, when he left on this journey, or how frequently he travels, we don’t know anything about him really. This feeds the suspense of the story. As for Josephine, all we really know about her is that she’s Mrs. Mallard’s sister. Josephine seems comforting, since she holds the crying Mrs. Mallard. Later, when Mrs. Mallard is alone by herself in her room, having her ecstatic freedom fit, Josephine is worried about her. And Richards, it’s interesting that Richard’s identifying characteristic is how quick (or not) he is. More than anything else, we learn a lot about Richard’s various response times. At the beginning of the story, it seems like he can’t get to the Mallards’ fast enough to break the news about Mr. Mallard’s death.

The story’s very structure is built on ironic elements. The very elements that will later destroy Mrs. Mallard can all be found in the very first paragraph. “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.” Her delicate condition, and the danger of unexpected news and are all highlighted in a twisted sort of way. Chopin used irony to make this story a tease, to force the reader to fill in the blanks about what we don’t know, what we want to know, and what’s going to happen. Between “too late” and “When the doctors came,” Mrs. Mallard has died. Yet the precise details of her death go unmentioned; the feelings she might have had go undescribed. This is ironic considering how detailed the narrator has been in sharing with readers the feelings Mrs. Mallard had been experiencing alone in her room. Now, in the most shocking moment of her life, nobody knows what Mrs. Mallard feels.

In “The Story of an Hour,” probably one of the biggest literary elements, is foreshadowing. Like in the beginning of the story, the narrator explains, “That Richards had only taken the time to assure himself of its truth by a second telegram.” This quote shows “double confirmation”, which almost always alludes to the opposite of the original thought. Or in this case, that Brently Mallard is indeed not dead. Also Chopin points out in the beginning that Mrs. Mallard is inflicted with a very serious heart condition and that she must be treated like a fragile newborn, so the news of her husband’s death could be so shocking that it kills her. But later on in the story, we come to find out that Mr. Mallard’s death doesn’t kill Louise, but brings her back to life in a weird sense. Then when Mr. Mallard comes home, the double confirmation proved earlier on that he was indeed not dead, the news of her husband’s living, causes Mrs. Mallard to die.

Obviously, anyone who sits down to read this is going to finish a lot sooner than someone who sits down to read a full-length novel, so the title of this short piece, isn’t just a title but more of a time length if anything. Short stories are generally smaller in scope than novels, so it works well for the subject of “The Story of an Hour” to be limited to events that can happen in only an hour’s time. We can read about the things that happen to Mrs. Mallard in just about the same amount of time that it takes for them to happen, which is pretty cool. This lends the whole thing a sense of immediacy, in other words, a feeling that things are happening to Mrs. Mallard right as we read them. When the narrator reads, “She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long” it brings you back to the foreshadow and even the ironic parts of the story, that she’s probably going to die pretty soon. And what about the “story” part? This literary work is both a story and a “story”; it’s a story Kate Chopin wrote and a “story” Mrs. Mallard lives.

In the title, “story” both describes the form of the tale that Chopin is telling about Mrs. Mallard, as well as the “story” Mrs. Mallard tells herself about the potential her life can hold, once her husband has died.

The literary element that ties everything together (sort of) is what happens at the end of the story, the conflict resolution. In the beginning, the author mentions Mrs. Mallard’s heart condition and how fragile she is. She also uses double confirmation to allude to the fact that Brently mallard is alive, and in the end of the story, Chopin uses all different kinds of elements to tie the story together, while leaving just a little bit of mystery left for the audience to participate in piecing an ending together. She brings Brently back to life, and the shock of him being alive and the fear that Lousie Mallard will have to go back to living her life miserably like she had for the past few years, or however long they had been married, is too much for her “fragile heart” to take in. “Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.” So it kills her. And ironically, the doctors say she died of the joy that kills.

“The Story of an Hour,” the short piece by Kate Chopin, in a sense was long because you can see a woman’s entire life change for the better, almost as if she’s reborn, then watch the man she loves return home alive, and it ironically kills her. I don’t believe Brently Mallard was a bad man, I just think he was too overprotective of his delicate wife, and she needed to be alive, to be free. But her husband forbade that. In the end, I tried my best to break this short piece down into the most fluent literary elements that I could. But it’s really up to the reader how the story plays out, everyone will read this story and pick out different things that stand out to them, I picked up on the ironic vibes the most personally. But everyone’s different. In the intro of my paper, I asked, “So what’s more important, attachment or freedom? Is it ever possible to have both?” I believe it is possible to have both. To be attached to someone is to share a physical, emotionally, and mental bond with that person. To be level with that person on all three planes, is difficult, but when you and another person can reach that point in a relationship, and don’t want to kill each other, I believe that’s called love. And I just don’t think Louise and Brently Mallard had reach that unexplainable, mutual feeling, love.

Published by Alex Craig