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Kate Chopin's short story is one of the early landmarks on the way of a continuous struggle for the rights of women. As we look upon it today, we see that the issues discussed in it are still of immediate importance, even though the feminist movement has covered a long way since 1894 when "The Story of an Hour" was first published. Even now this little literary masterpiece can take the reader by surprise with an unexpected subversion of a familiar stereotype portrayed in a highly ironic key. Rich in stylistic devices and symbols Chopin's poignant and ironic fiction creates a vivid contrast to reveal the oppressive nature of marriage and the universal value of freedom and self-sufficiency.
Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" revolves around a brilliantly subverted stereotype. A wife who is supposed to grieve the loss of her husband is unexpectedly inspired and revitalized by the prospect of living an independent life. She finds joy in her new future freed from the stifling love of her "other half". This irony takes the readers by surprise and actively engages them in the polemics. The original title of the story "The Dream of an Hour" (changed later to "The Story of an Hour") where the key word is "a dream" creates a sharp contrast with the dull gray undertones of the story's setting. "Broken sentences; veiled hints that revealed in half concealing" (Chopin) of the careful and tender friends, bearing the sad message, are effectively contrasted with a delightful portrayal of domestic comfort: "open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair" (Chopin), two things which become symbols of Louise's future independent life. When Chopin writes about "the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life", "the delicious breath of rain", "the notes of a distant song which some one was singing" and "countless sparrows twittering in the eaves" (Chopin), she appeals to the senses of her readers to let them live Louise's dream as she might have lived it herself. In such a way, she juxtaposes this appealing prospect with the monotony of the character's every day.
In order to show how much this contrast has impressed Louise and how powerful her emotions are Chopin employs vivid metaphors. First, grief is represented as a storm, a mighty force that shakes the character up: "When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone" (Chopin). Exhaustion is a ghost that tortures her inner self: "Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul" (Chopin). The sense of emancipation that Louise experiences after her husband's death is personified as an unknown creature that is "creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air" (Chopin). This personification helps create a slightly awry, suspicious, expectant atmosphere as the protagonist is both waiting for the sensation to come and fears it: "She was beginning to recognize 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" (Chopin). Finally, when the character abandons the last remnants of her self-restraint and yields to the dreams of the happy future as a free and independent woman, the author uses personification to show how wild these dreams seem both to the character and many of her readers: "Her fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her" (Chopin). The metaphors, that Chopin introduces into the story, help her create a vivid emotional landscape that reflects the character's inner struggle on her way from submission to liberation.
Contrast and surprise are two words that define the structure of the plot in the story. The first sentence of the first paragraph ("Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death" (Chopin)) creates certain expectations of how the plot might develop. But in the last paragraph these expectations are ironically betrayed: Mr. Mallard is alive while Mrs. Mallard dies of heart disease. With the help of this ironic plot twist Chopin manages to veil the significance of Louise's climactic revelation. In "Unveiling Kate Chopin" Emily Toth explains: "Kate Chopin ... had to have her heroine die. A story in which an unhappy wife is suddenly widowed, becomes rich, and lives happily ever after . . . would have been much too radical, far too threatening in the 1890s" (Toth 10). This ending performs at least two other important functions. First, it shows how powerful and engrossing the spiritual change that Louise has experienced has been. It leaves no place for putting up with the past. Secondly, it fosters alternative interpretations. For instance, Mark Cunningham tries to prove that Louise dies from the psychological pressure she has endured: a lonely emancipated woman simply had no place in the contemporary society (Cunningham 48-55). Lawrence Berkove surmises that the protagonist, an immature and shallow egotist, receives death as a symbolic atonement (Berkove 152-55). This wide interpretative spectrum is a sign of a profound richness in meaning and nuance that Kate Chopin's short story exhibits in the way it interprets such a controversial and topical issue.
Chopin's short story is an intricate literary experiment within which through the use of symbols, metaphors, contrast, irony and peculiar plot twists the author manages to explore the problem of the corrupting influence of dependence and oppression upon human inner life and relationships in a marriage.
Berkove, Lawrence I. "Fatal Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin's 'The Story of an Hour'." American Literary Realism, no 32, 2000, pp. 152-58.
Chopin, Kate. "The Story of an Hour." KateChopin.org, 2017, www.katechopin.org/story-hour/. Accessed 15 Feb. 2017.
Cunningham, Mark. "The Autonomous Female Self and the Death of Louise Mallard in Kate Chopin's 'Story of an Hour'." English Language Notes, no. 42, 2004, pp. 48-55.
Toth, Emily. Unveiling Kate Chopin. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
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