Characterization of The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin’s “The Story of An Hour” deals with the complex layers of human psyche and the unexplored realms power and freedom in man-woman relationships. The entire story is presented in third person narrative, throwing light on the characters only through descriptions of their appearance and states of mind. The inner thoughts of the protagonist, Mrs. Mallard, form its leitmotif. News of a railroad accident in which Mr. Brently Mallard had supposedly died and what happens in the span of an hour afterwards form the plot. Mr. Mallard’s friend Richards, Mrs. Mallard’s sister Josephine and Mr. Mallard are the other characters who fill in the action through their brief appearances and fragmentary dialogues. It is Mrs. Mallard that Chopin focuses on through the narrative technique of interior monologue to reveal her unique state of mind in response to the news of her husband’s death.
One significant element of Mrs. Mallard’s identity, as described in the first sentence of the story, is that she is “afflicted with a heart trouble”. Josephine and Richards break the news of Mr. Mallard’s death as gently as possible. The readers are also led to believe that the news could have a devastating effect on her. She is described as responding instantaneously to the news by weeping at once, “with wild abandonment”. Contrary to many women who would have remained in a paralysed inability to accept the news and its significance, she did let her emotions flow on a stretch. However, she went alone to her room once the storm of grief had subsided. No one was allowed to follow her there. The time she spent alone in her room happens to be the turning point in the story.
She sank in an army chair facing the open window with a view of the cloudy sky framed in it. The air outside was pleasant with spring life. She continued sobbing absent mindedly for a while, in a stupor-like condition. The major physical description of her can be founding the sentence “She was young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength”. But she kept on staring outside now, supposedly in a “suspension of intelligent thought”. She realized something coming to her, but was unable to realize it fully. Her demeanor changes dramatically as she realizes that it is freedom that is awaiting her. She gets very excited at this prospect. Even as she reflects on the necessity to weep once her husband’s dead body arrives, the state of excitement refuses to fade away from her essence of being. She thinks of love as something that existed only occasionally in her relationship with her husband. Love seemed like an unsolved mystery to her while she was swept away by a possession of self-assertion. She perceives that she is free altogether now, body and soul. She could think of living for herself in the coming years. She will not be restricted by the overpowering presence of her husband who made decisions for her. She realizes that she did not cherish her husband constantly imposing his will over her. Thus the news of her husband’s death leads her eventually to an exultant state of mind.
The twist in the end reveals that the information regarding the death of Mr. Mallard was baseless, and he turns up unexpectedly, to the surprise of all. Josephine lets of a shriek of horror and Richard tries in vain to block him from the view of his wife. The last sentence tells what happened to Mrs. Mallard: “When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease–of the joy that kills”. The “joy” mentioned here has multiple layers of meaning to the reader who are allowed to get a glance at her real state of mind when she was alone at her room. For those who are unaware of this, she could have died out of the sudden joy at seeing her husband alive. But the joy which is spoken of here is her extreme sense of freedom and happiness in the lonely moments. It could be this joy that led her to a shock when she saw that her husband was not at all dead and gone. The sudden disappointment and the feeling that she is robed of her freedom once again which had apparently stopped her heart.
Josephine and Richards remain on the periphery, while many things about the characters of Mr. Mallard and his wife are exposed in the story. Mrs. Mallard’s self-reflexive moments are sufficient enough to explain how her life with her husband had been. The external appearances undergo a sea change as Mrs. Mallard’s secret joy at the death of her husband is mentioned. For her, the unthinkable possibility of getting from the bond of marriage with him is made a reality when he is dead. The male-centered family structure where the female identity was repressed forever is depicted here. The very appearance of Mr. Mallard at the end of the story is sufficient enough to kill her joy forever, and thereby end her life. She is in fact given a false hope of freedom in the one hour in which she is under the impression that her husband is dead. But she is robbed of all her happiness when she realizes that he is still alive. Here she comes to a point where she finds no reason to live. The strong and sophisticated characterization of Mrs. Mallard makes the story unique and powerful.