Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’, written in the 1890s, when women’s rights were just as much a myth as a booming American economy, is a lush forest of words and descriptions teeming with different species of irony. Keeping in mind the economic and chauvinistic climate of the country back then, as well as the personal life of Chopin, most critics and readers have branded it as a work of feminism written much ahead of its time, which would have had the alarming potential of stirring a controversy. A tale of a widowed woman celebrating a bright future in the aftermath of her husband’s supposed death would never have seen the light of day, which is probably why the author – renowned for her works like ‘The Storm’ and The Awakening – conjured an unexpected anti-climax for the story. We can say that the protagonist, Mrs. Mallard, is a possible alter ego for Chopin herself, a chained writer who had her dreams of independently creating her own conclusion broken, due to the sudden arrival of the prevailing prejudiced mindset reminiscent of Brently Mallard (Mrs. Mallard’s husband, who was presumed to be dead). In both cases, only one death occurred, that of a happy ending.
I chose to analyse this short story due to the striking similarities in themes between this piece and the recently released Netflix film Pagglait (this article focuses solely on the story). While the plots are entirely different, both the story and the movie complement each other in various ways. ‘The Story of an Hour’ captures the very essence of Pagglait perfectly, and several concepts in the former can be explained using instances from the latter. Both tales proficiently examine the nuances of marriage and the complications of relationships, which are not as fluffy as they appear to be. Truly, is Sanya Malhotra’s Sandhya that different from Louise Mallard? In a way, even the husbands in both works seem to almost be mirror images of each other. ‘The Story of an Hour’ did inspire a 1985 cinematic adaptation, The Joy That Kills (the title has its roots in the concluding line of the story), but I feel that if it was made into a short film today, it would come across as phenomenal in several aspects, especially for depicting how patriarchy has – like a deadly python – silently and successfully wrapped itself around the unsuspecting and ignorant victim that is humanity, and continues to suffocate its prey in its inescapable grasp even today. As Sandhya rightfully noted, “When women get wise, everyone calls them mad (pagglait)”.
One can trace the inspiration of the short story’s railroad disaster (which supposedly kills the protagonist’s husband) back to a tragic accident that took away Chopin’s father when she was only five years old. It can be interpreted that the idea of the sudden, unprecedented arrival of Mr. Mallard in the conclusion stemmed from her childish hope of having wanted to see her father again. Having watched the women of her family choose to remain widows rather than remarry, Chopin came to learn about the importance of independence in a woman’s life. During that point in time, despite facing a severe recession, America witnessed the genesis of technological advancements such as electric lighting and the radio, and ‘The Story of an Hour’, which has strong feminist undertones, can also be considered to be a warning against the massive impact that technology has on our lives. The railroad can be seen as a symbol of distance between couples back then, eliminating opportunities for them to spend some quality time together, which probably explains Louise’s contradictory and confused opinions regarding her husband’s love, as well as her thirst for freedom. Despite the existence of cheesy theories about how love never dies, it is, in the end, like a machine that needs to be maintained. The lack of maintenance can result in its malfunctioning. This is also evident in the lines of the story: “…the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed grey and dead. But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely.”
Mrs. Mallard was a lady “whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength”. The emergence of newfound technology, in spite of bettering the lives of people, also forced those like her to repress beautiful emotions, and perhaps the most important one in married life: love.
This narrative is the story of an hour, a very important hour in Louise’s life, an hour of wonderful dreams of freedom, but also the final hour before her demise. The title stresses the importance of time in a human’s life; time, which was never spent well between the couple; time, which seems to have increased its sprint like a mad horse, ever since the advent of industrialisation. The telegraph, through which “intelligence of the railroad disaster was received”, serves as an allegory for how quickly information and civilisation are moving. Instead of having enough time to think and process the death of her husband, it is thrust into Louise in its entirety, followed within minutes by the shock of seeing him alive.
The character of Louise Mallard is very debatable. The most prevalent theme in this story is that of freedom and the fight against repression, and Louise is a person who had been repressed in desires, thoughts and emotions, as well as by society. She is nothing more than a tool of the author to criticise the oppression endemic to those times, but passes off as a confused and pessimistic individual. One moment she is pondering the meaning of love, the next, she had rejected it as meaningless, as shown in the lines: “And yet she had loved him – sometimes…What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognised as the strongest impulse of her being!”
Louise turns out to be an immature egotist and a victim of her own self-assertion. Her perception of her husband’s supposed death was fostered primarily by emotion, rather than rationality. Until that moment, she had lived a life devoid of many emotions, enough to make her wonder whether life was worth living (“It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long”). Chopin paints her protagonist’s husband as repressive, a man who had smothered or silenced her will. This directly contradicts her earlier image of him as a loving husband. Perhaps this dilemma can be explained with the help of a simple quote from Marriage Story: “I never really came alive for myself; I was only feeding his aliveness… The dead part wasn’t dead, it was just in a coma.” Mr. Mallard was probably not a tyrant in the house; perhaps he never really saw his wife as a being separate from him, capable of thinking and having opinions, and slowly his likes and dislikes and his viewpoints began to flood her mind, leading her to suffocate unconsciously. Therefore, her newfound freedom is brought on by an influx of emotion that adds value and meaning to her life. Although initially Louise weeps for her spouse’s untimely death, the strength of emotion is so powerful that she actually feels joy when she realises that she is free.
No evidence is provided in the story to show how she was repressed, but her reaction to his death and her newfound freedom is enough to hint at how marriage, in general, stifles both men and women. We must thus not judge her too harshly, given her circumstances and the silent oppression she faced. One can conclude this analysis with another quote from Marriage Story: “You liked this life until you decided you hated it.”
Women in the 19th century were expected to be demure, gentle, and passive, which often went against their personal desires. Working women were seen as a stain in the white cloth that was society, which needed to be washed off, regardless of why they needed the job. Married or pregnant women who continued to work were often castigated. The contrast between Louise and her husband’s lives is apparent: Louise is confined to her home (though this could also be due to her fragile heart), while Brently uses the railroad, walks into or out of his house whenever he wishes, and has individual possessions such as “his grip-sack and umbrella”. Brently is ignorant of the train wreck that Louise believed killed him and composedly returns, while she has to deal with the grief of his surmised death, as well as the conflicting roles she has to play as a dutiful wife and a free woman. Louise’s existence is bound by societal beliefs of how a woman should live and how a wife should conduct herself. Therefore, once her husband “dies”, she sees a way of claiming the freedom that he had enjoyed as a man and she had craved as a woman.
Marriage back then helped keep women in check and secured the social and political power of men. In her story, Kate Chopin describes marriage like this: “There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.” This is better explained by exploring a kindred quote from the Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor: “People do, don’t they? Mix up love and possession. I don’t think that should be possible. I mean, they’re opposites, really. Love and ownership.” Freedom is a forbidden fruit for women like Louise; it is the stuff their dreams are made of. She reacts with obvious grief on hearing the sorrowful piece of news, and though her reaction is much more intense than expected (“She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms”), it is appropriate. She continues to weep even when she is alone, although the crying is more involuntary than conscious. Alone, she realises about her new-born independence, it enlivens and excites her, and she feels possessed by it (“Free! Body and soul free!”). It was a force too powerful to oppose, as is indicated by the lines: “She was beginning to recognise this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will, as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been.”
The story is famous for its irony. When Louise’s sister Josephine implored her to open the door, scared that she would fall ill, there she sat, “drinking in an elixir of life through that open window.” Another example is how “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.” Unfortunately, her wish remained unfulfilled as is revealed in the concluding line of the story: “When the doctors came they said she died of heart disease – of the joy that kills.” Indeed, it had been an ailing heart that was the cause, but it had been broken, just like her illusions of freedom. She died not because of the loss of her husband and the sudden joy of seeing him again (or maybe she did; the conclusion is wickedly ambiguous), but because of the loss of her beautiful freedom. Repression was what killed her in the end. Her husband’s shocking comeback indicated that it was time for her dreams to abandon her.
A quick look at Kate Chopin’s life will, however, point at something else. Her husband’s untimely death due to swamp fever provided her the brainwave for this story, but it also left Chopin in heavy debt and with a responsibility of managing the family’s struggling business. Perhaps she wanted to show us that Louise Mallard, despite all her glorious visions of liberation, could never be free. She would be released from the bonds of marriage, but she could never truly be free (in fact, she dies as Mrs. Mallard, retaining her husband’s name in death; we never come to know of her maiden name). Maybe death was a welcome deliverance from all her past problems, and any future pains she would have to endure; in the back of her mind, she must have been aware of this truth in her final moments.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.