I usually try to avoid every possible spoiler in reviews that I write, though with The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin having been published in 1894, I think it’s fair to say that the time period in which spoilers for this book is a terrible thing to post in a review has long passed. Also, I really don’t know how you’d review this story without giving something away.
Honestly, I can’t ever really think of this story without laughing a bit.
I read Chopin’s The Story of an Hour for the first time many years ago, now, way back in high school. And admittedly, my young mind at the time understood the message the story was sending, but didn’t really understand the message in a historical sense. You see, this was before my introduction to Feminism. Therein lies a rather depressing insight into how I was raised.
It wasn’t until years later, when I sat down to read it again, this time for a college course that I was able to understand a little more. And it just goes to show the importance of having some background knowledge in women’s history.
A story once inconsequential to me was suddenly not.
You see, The Story of an Hour details a young woman’s response to learning that her husband has died. Now, this is a man she’s probably spent a great many years with, but not so many that she could be considered old. Considering that the average life expectancy for women of this time was generally somewhere between 44-50, I think it’s safe to guess that she was probably in her late twenties. So, just think about that for a moment.
The story goes on to send her through some phases of grief. First she weeps, then she locks herself away in her room, and then a realization dawns on her. Whereas just the day before she was lamenting the possibility of having a long life to live out, now she feels ready to celebrate it!
Well, for a deeper understanding, all one has to do is look at the history.
You see, it was only in the 1820s that the United States passed laws that allowed women their own personal economy, the right to own–though not control–property. Somewhere down the line they were granted the right to control property when their husbands were incapable of doing so themselves. In the 1870s, women were given the right to control their own income.
And none of this was country-wide. If you look at the timeline, each state had to individually pass these laws. And it took decades for them to all slowly follow suit. By 1890, there are still states slowly catching up.
So, it stands to reason that it’s safe to assume husbands control nearly everything in their wives lives.
And this is the setting of the story.
Young Mrs. Louise Mallard is now imagining all the ways she will be able to live her life, no longer under the thumb of a husband whom she was only able to love some of the time. Imagine being that woman. Imagine that feeling of freedom.
It’s kind of mind blowing.
And then it all falls apart.
As it turns out, the accident in which her husband was said to have died was one that he was not even present for. An unknowing Brently Mallard turns up, opening the front door of his home just as is wife is being lead down the stairs. And Louise is proclaimed by the doctors to have “died of heart disease–of the joy that kills.”
Now, the key word there is joy, right?
I think anyone reading this story can see, quite clearly, that it is not joy that kills Louise. Instead, it was probably the shock and despair of realizing that the freedom she believed for just a few moments she had was all at once being torn from her with the return of her husband, alive and well. How devastating.
There’s a funny sort of irony to it all. At least, in the end, Louise was free of him regardless.