By Dr Oliver Tearle
Some short stories can say all they need to do in just a few pages, and Kate Chopin’s three-page 1894 story ‘The Story of an Hour’ (sometimes known as ‘The Dream of an Hour’) is a classic example. Yet those three pages remain tantalisingly ambiguous, perhaps because so little is said, so much merely hinted at. Yet Chopin’s short story is, upon closer inspection, a subtle, studied analysis of death, marriage, and personal wishes. Written in April 1894 and originally published in Vogue in December of that year, the story focuses on an hour in the life of a married woman who has just learnt that her husband has apparently died. You can read ‘The Story of an Hour’ here.
What happens in that brief hour, that story of an hour? A married woman, Mrs Louise Mallard, who has heart trouble, learns that her husband has died in a railroad accident. Her sister Josephine breaks the news to her; it was her husband’s friend Richards who first heard about the railroad disaster and saw her husband’s name, Brently Mallard, at the top of the list of fatalities. Her first reaction is to weep at the news that her husband is dead; she then takes herself off to her room to be alone.
She sinks into an armchair and finds herself attuned to a series of sensations: the trees outside the window ‘aquiver with the new spring life’, the ‘breath of rain’ in the air; the sound of a peddler crying his wares in the street below. She finds herself going into a sort of trancelike daze, a ‘suspension of intelligent thought’.
Then, gradually, a feeling begins to form within her: a sense of freedom. Now her husband is dead, it seems, she feels free. She dreads seeing her husband’s face (as she knows she must, when she goes to identify the body), but she knows that beyond that lie years and years of her life yet to be lived, and ‘would all belong to her absolutely’. She reflects that she had loved her husband – sometimes. Sometimes she hadn’t. But now, that didn’t matter: what matters is the ‘self-assertion’, the declaration of independence, that her life alone represents a new start.
But then, her sister Josephine calls from outside the door for her to come out, worried that Louise is making herself ill. But Louise doesn’t feel ill: she feels on top of the world. She used to dread the prospect of living to a ripe old age, but now she welcomes such a prospect. Eventually she opens the door and she and Josephine go back downstairs. Richards is still down there, waiting for them. Then, there’s a key in the front door and who should enter but … Mrs Mallard’s husband, Brently Mallard.
It turns out he was nowhere near the scene of the railroad accident, and is unharmed! Mrs Mallard is so shocked at his return that she dies, partly because of her heart disease but also, so ‘they’ said, from the unexpected ‘joy’ of her husband’s return.
In some ways, ‘The Story of an Hour’ prefigures a later story like D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ (1911), which also features a female protagonist whose partner’s death makes her reassess her life with him and to contemplate the complex responses his death has aroused in her. However, in Lawrence’s story the husband really has died (in a mining accident), whereas in ‘The Story of an Hour’, we find out at the end of the story that Mr Mallard was not involved in the railroad accident and is alive and well. In a shock twist, it is his wife who dies, upon learning that he is still alive.
What should we make of this ‘dream of an hour’? That alternative title is significant, not least because of the ambiguity surrounding the word ‘dream’. Is Louise so plunged into shock by the news of her husband’s apparent death that she begins to hallucinate that she would be better off without him? Is this her way of coping with traumatic news – to try to look for the silver lining in a very black cloud? Or should we analyse ‘dream’ as a sign that she entertains aspirations and ambitions, now her husband is out of the way? ‘The Dream of an Hour’ perhaps inevitably puts us in mind of Kate Chopin’s most famous story, the short novel The Awakening (1899), whose title reflects its female protagonist Edna Pontellier’s growing awareness that there is more to life than her wifely existence.
But Louisa Mallard’s ‘awakening’ remains a dream; when she awakes from it, upon learning that her husband is still alive and all her fancies about her future life have been in vain, she dies.
‘The Story of an Hour’ is an early example of the impressionistic method of storytelling which was also being developed by Anton Chekhov around the same time as Chopin, and which would later be used by modernists such as Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. Although the story uses an omniscient third-person narrator, we are shown things from particular character perspectives in a way that reflects their own confusions and erratic thoughts – chiefly, of course, Louisa Mallard’s own. But this impressionistic style – which is more interested in patterns of thought, daydreaming, and emotional responses to the world than in tightly structured plots – continues right until the end of the story.
Consider the final sentence of the story: ‘When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease – of joy that kills.’ The irony, of course, is that Louisa appears to have accepted her husband’s death and to have taken his demise as a chance to liberate herself from an oppressive marriage (note Chopin’s reference to the lines on her face which ‘bespoke repression and even a certain strength’ – what did she need that strength for, we wonder?). So it was not joy but disappointment, if anything, that brought on the heart attack that killed her. But the (presumably male) doctors who attended her death would not have assumed any such thing: they would have analysed her death as a result of her love for her husband, and the sheer joy she felt at having him back.
Chopin’s story also foreshadows Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’, and Laura Sheridan’s enigmatic emotional reaction to seeing her first dead body (as with Chopin’s story, a man who has died in an accident). If you enjoyed this analysis of ‘The Story of an Hour’, you might also enjoy Anton Chekhov’s 1900 story ‘At Christmas Time’, to which Chopin’s story has been compared.
Discover more of Kate Chopin’s fine stories, including ‘The Story of an Hour’, in The Awakening And Other Stories (Oxford World’s Classics).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.