Women’s liberation or freedom has become the household word for working women in the present world. Though we talk of women’s emancipation, it never means that they can live independently. Women need adequate protection, social and economical development and their own identity. This article sheds light on the married folks Mr. and Mrs. Mallards. Kate Chopin’s narratives present the plight and experience of a married woman at the end of the century. The treatment of the women characters in her stories is considered radical and opposing, going against the familiar ideas of feminism at that time. The popular short story first published in Vogue Magazine in 1894 explores the idea of women’s emancipation from the domestic compulsions.
In the words of Simone Signoret, “Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years.” The story is set in the house of the Mallards in the late 19th Century, a time when women were confined to the private sphere of the home and were often denied participation in the public sphere. The domestic space is traditionally identified as the space of women which defines and limits their potential for freedom.
Home and family are patriarchal institutions that seek to deny women a voice and trap them into accepting the American dream as having a good husband, children, and a home. The world outside is the sphere of the man and he leaves home to work outside, while the woman stays inside, to manage the domestic sphere. This notion is referred to as the “cult of domesticity” by scholar Alison Kemper, where the woman was the ‘angel in the house.’ The author sets the story in the turn of the century to highlight the changes that were becoming visible – the breaking down of the strict divisions of male and female spaces in society.
The author Kate Chopin, like the character in her story, had first-hand experience with the male-dominated society of that time and had experienced the death of her husband at a young age. The similarity between Kate Chopin and her heroine can only leave us to wonder how much of this story is fiction and how much is personal experience. Indeed, Louise Mallard and Kate Chopin’s lives are very similar and ironic. Louise’s life began once she came to the realization that she could live for herself. During this ‘hour’ she felt true joy and freedom, but her life ended abruptly as her husband walked through the door. Like Mrs. Mallard, Chopin’s writing career began once her husband died.
She wrote a few collections of short stories, but when she began expressing her feminist views, the critics walked through the door and her life as a writer was over. The background of the story gives us the idea of what Mrs. Mallard’s marriage meant to her. We see a picture of a young well-to-do wife who seems to be very pleased with her life. We also get the impression that she was deeply in love with her husband. The news, brought by her sister and her husband’s friend Richards about his death, filled her with a big sorrow: “She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms.” This was her first reaction, but, in fact, Louise reacted as most wives would react.
After her initial emotions she went to another room to be by herself: “There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.” These sentences illustrate how Louise had always felt about her marriage. The “comfortable, roomy armchair” was her family life itself. Now we can conclude that in reality Mrs. Mallard wasn’t very happy in her marriage. Her life was like a duty ‘the duty to be married.’ And then, when she realized that her husband was dead, her initial grief turned to the extreme happiness. She felt free. She felt free from a “gray cloud” over her head that covered the sunshine from her. It’s clear that the shadow over her head was her husband’s domination.
In addition, Mrs. Mallard’s happiness was caused by the vision of a new future. Louise felt that she didn’t have any other life than marriage, but now she had an opportunity to begin to live in a different way. When she collapsed into the chair, at first, she felt deep grief, then, she experienced the fatigue from everything around her; at last, she realized that she is free. “Free! Body and soul free!” she kept whispering.
Subsequently, after accepting this new feeling, Louise began to feel comfortable with the idea of living by herself, and “her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body”. Louise realized that happiness filled her, no matter that this feeling followed a bad event. Of course, she had not forgotten about her deceased husband. She remembered how loving he was to her and how she would miss him, but she also thought about the years of liberation and the air of freedom that she would undoubtedly enjoy. This was a confusing time for Louise. She knew that she was going to enjoy her new life, but yet she had mixed feelings toward Brently, her husband.
“There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in brief moment of illumination.” Filled with the feeling of happiness and vision of the free life, Mrs. Mallard came out of the room. But exactly at this moment, when everything was so excellent, the disaster struck. Brently Mallard, who was supposed to be dead, entered the house. He re-entered Louise’s world and put an end to her new life. Mrs. Mallard understood that all her dreams, all visions and plans were ruined. At that instant the lightning of reality hit her mind. She realized that he returned, and everything would go on in bad old way. The same “gray cloud” covered her and the particles of her broken dreams.
Unfortunately, Louise couldn’t tolerate the returning of her husband, and she collapsed with a heart attack. As doctors said afterwards, it was the joy that killed her. Unlike his wife, Brently felt sorrow by her mishap, although he didn’t know that she had died because of his staying alive. ‘Freedom’ – What a magical word! Any of us puts its own sense into this small combination of letters. Sometimes we realize that we can do everything and give everything in order to be free from someone or something that dominates us and influences our life.
In fact, the question of freedom appears to be the most burning problem in family relationships. The cause of these difficulties lies in a husband’s attitude towards his wife: he dominates her, shapes her lifestyle, make her live for him instead of living for herself. Unfortunately, the wife accepts his behaviour because she loves him and doesn’t want to lose him. At the same time, the feeling of obedience in order to prevent divorce lives in her only at the beginning of their marriage. As the years pass by, she becomes used to the subordinate mode of life that her husband has thrown on her. And after some time she finds out that she hates her lifestyle because she has devoted all her life to her husband, and the only thing she wants is freedom.
This astonishing story strongly indicates that how deeply Mrs. Mallard desired her own freedom, but there was a conflict between her life and death. She had her own contemplation about life such as love, marriage and freedom. But it was not an appropriate thing over hundred years ago for a lady to have her own ideas against the established ones. The story suggests us that Mrs. Mallard could live well if she had been a traditional lady, but she was not. On hearing the news, she was not alone with her sister and her husband’s friend, Richard, but she was lonely. In real life, at that time, the social living space was large, but for Mrs. Mallard so small. No one could share her thoughts which were free. Therefore, she shut the door shedding those who disturbed her thinking even if they were her sister and her husband’s friend, Richards.
Looking into Mrs. Mallard’s psychological state, we could find that the emotional change must be described as the development of an increasingly resistant barrier between the real external world and that world which is most authentic in her experience—the inner world of her fantasies. Though in her deep heart there is an ardent longing for liberation and for female self-assertion, and beneath her reserve lies a strain of romanticism and rebelliousness, she has no chance to release from what she evidently felt as repression or frustration, thereby freeing forces that had lain dormant in her. Maybe it is such reasons that cause her heart trouble. Only when she was told the news of her husband’s sudden death did she breathe the free and fresh air:
Her moment of vision, when she understands herself and regains control of her life, is followed immediately by the arrival of her husband, Brently Mallard “who entered, a little travel-stained, composedly carrying his grip-sack and umbrella. He had been far from the scene of the accident, and did not even know there had been one.” Her death is described as a “joy that kills”; however it is the knowledge that with her husband’s return she would lose her chance of liberation that kills her. It is only in death that she is truly free from her husband.
At the end of The Story of an Hour, Mrs. Mallard seems to realize it’s impossible for her to keep both her spirit and body free in the traditional society. After the sudden death, Mrs. Mallard gains the eternal spiritual freedom, melting into the universe. To some extent, she is not tragic and has taken fate in her own hands, making the supreme mastery over her destiny. From this point of view, maybe the doctors’ diagnosis is right that Mrs. Mallard did die of joy, but the delight is not from the good news that her husband is still alive, but from the death in which she acquires an immortal freedom. All the conventional conflicts are deconstructed, and are not existent for her any longer.
All through her life, Kate Chopin must have been constantly shifting to adjust to the loss of her family members such as her father (in 1855), great-grandmother, brother, grandmother, her husband (in 1883), and her mother, and to her changing place in her personal community. Turning to escapist literature, she tried to forget the world and her grief. In time, she bounced back into life after she gained strength. No wonder, many of her protagonists including Mrs. Mallard seem to be searching for self-understanding in spite of the final death.
At first, the idea of ‘liberation’ seems like a terrible thing to Mrs. Mallard who’s restricted in lots of ways. The heart trouble which she had too could be due to the internal conflicts. Louise truly dies of the shock caused by the unwelcome and unexpected return of her husband, but doctors, representing the voice of the patriarchal society claim that she has died of “joy that kills.” Mrs. Mallard’s death reveals the impossibility of the dream, of a woman finding selfhood and liberation within a marriage.