I want to continue our course with another deceptively subtle short story, Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.” (Chopin is pronounced “SHOW-pan.”) Chopin was originally from St. Louis, MO, born either in 1850 or 1851.
Rather than go into Chopin’s life, I want to draw attention to some parts of her biography that are particularly relevant for her short story:
1) Like Louise Mallard, the protagonist of “The Story of an Hour” Chopin’s own life really did not begin until after her husband passed away in 1882. Chopin’s writing career began in 1889 and spanned a little over a decade, until her death in 1904. In that time she wrote two novels –At Fault (1890) and The Awakening (1899) – and over a hundred short stories.
2) Chopin’s accomplishments as a writer were not recognized until much later after her death. Actually her work, which challenges conventional notions of love and marriage, was condemned as promoting immorality and for being obscene. (The protagonist of The Awakening, Edna Pontellier, pursues and actively enjoys extramarital affairs!) It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that literary scholars saw in Chopin a proto-feminist voice, a writer who presented sensitively the confinement women felt in traditional marriage.
3) The story you read for this week was originally published in the 1894 issue of Vogue . The initial title for the story was “The Dream of an Hour.”
For a more complete biography of Chopin’s life, check out the homepage for The Kate Chopin International Society.
If you are interested, I found a decent reading of Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” on Youtube.
“Joy that Kills”
The basic plot of the story is as follows: learning of her husband’s supposed death from her sister Josephine, Louise confines herself to her room. For the next hour, Louise experiences the near overwhelming realization of her new freedom. Upon leaving her room, Louise see her husband Brently coming home, having not been involved in the train accident. Louise’s heart gives out and she dies from a “joy that kills.” While the basic plot is easy to follow, there are some important questions that the story leaves to us to answer. The central question is how should we understand the freedom that Louise experiences. Consider how this freedom is described in the story. Here’s the moment when Louise perceives this freedom:
There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.
While not fully recognizing what it is that is coming towards her, Louise is fearful of it. This newly found freedom is depicted as “reaching toward her” and “creeping out of the sky.” Chopin’s wording gives a very ominous characterization of Louise’s freedom. In the following paragraph, Louise tries to beat “this thing” “back with her will – as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been.” The way this freedom comes to Louise is presented in a rape-like fashion.
However, Louise comes to embrace this liberation.Think about the scene that Louise looks at through the open window:
She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring of life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air…and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.
After learning of her husband’s death, Louise is looking at the scene of Spring, which is full of life continuing.
The initial terror that she felt for “this thing” creeping out of the sky subsides and “her pulses beat faster, and the coursing blood warmed every inch of her body.” Her freedom has gone from this un-namable “thing” she strove against to invigorating her. Indeed, she leaves her room like “a goddess of Victory.”
When scholars started reading Chopin’s short story again in the 1960s, they saw Louise’s story as one of liberation from the oppressive institution of marriage. In this way of reading the story, Chopin challenges conventional notions about love and marriage, which she may have found to be confining for women. Yet there is room to question this reading of “The Story of an Hour.” Let’s focus on the last line of the story. When Brently open the door, Louise sees him and dies. “When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease – of joy that kills.” From the characters’ perspective, Louise’s heart gave out from the joy she felt at seeing her husband alive. (You must remember that only the reader knows what Louise has experienced in her room.) But how should we, the readers, understand this “joy that kills”? Is the sudden loss of this freedom since Brently is alive what kills Louise? (Having seen the years of freedom during which she would only live for herself, Louise could not take the shock of losing her freedom.) Or is this freedom too much for Louise and what finally kills her? (Notice that this freedom is described as “monstrous.” In this sense, Louise’s death maybe seen as a punishment. Consider how scandalous it would be for Chopin to write about a recent widow who is overjoyed at the prospect of her husband’s death)
Here’s a youtube clip from Rebecca Balcarcel, a professor at Tarrant County College, who explains a way of reading Louise’s freedom as joyful:
Now, Balcarcel understands the freedom as a positive experience for Louise. Personally, I think she overlooks the ambiguous language that Chopin uses to describe this newly found freedom, which is both “monstrous” and a “joy.”
Ultimately, the way we answer the question of Louise’s freedom as “monstrous” or joyfull determines whether you see Louise’s death as a punishment or a tragedy. Do you find Louise as selfish, narcissistic? Her reaction to Brently’s death is overwhelming joy of being able to live her own life – kind of cold. (Btw, while we know that Brently “never looked save with love upon her,” the story leaves ambiguous Louise’s own feeling toward Brently. Louise seems to brush aside whether she loved her husband or not.) Or do you see Louise’s death as tragic, in that the story of her life is confined to only an hour?