Imagine a world where women are fighting for unprecedented rights, the economic climate is unpredictable, and new developments in technology are made every year. While this world might sound like the present day, it also describes America in the 1890s.
It was in this world that author Kate Chopin wrote and lived, and many of the issues of the period are reflected in her short story, “The Story of an Hour.” Now, over a century later, the story remains one of Kate Chopin’s most well-known works and continues to shed light on the internal struggle of women who have been denied autonomy.
In this guide to Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” we’ll discuss:
- A brief history of Kate Chopin and America the 1890s
- “The Story of an Hour” summary
- Analysis of the key story elements in “The Story of an Hour,” including themes, characters, and symbols
By the end of this article, you’ll have an expert grasp on Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.” So let’s get started!
“The Story of an Hour” Summary
If it’s been a little while since you’ve read Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” it can be hard to remember the important details. This section includes a quick recap, but you can find “The Story of an Hour” PDF and full version here. We recommend you read it again before diving into our analyses in the next section!
For those who just need a refresher, here’s “The Story of an Hour” summary:
Mrs. Louise Mallard is at home when her sister, Josephine, and her husband’s friend, Richards, come to tell her that her husband, Brently Mallard, has been killed in a railroad accident. Richards had been at the newspaper office when the news broke, and he takes Josephine with him to break the news to Louise since they’re afraid of aggravating her heart condition. Upon hearing the news of her husband’s death, Louise is grief-stricken, locks herself in her room, and weeps.
From here, the story shifts in tone. As Louise processes the news of her husband’s death, she realizes something wonderful and terrible at the same time: she is free. At first she’s scared to admit it, but Louise quickly finds peace and joy in her admission. She realizes that, although she will be sad about her husband (“she had loved him—sometimes,” Chopin writes), Louise is excited for the opportunity to live for herself. She keeps repeating the word “free” as she comes to terms with what her husband’s death means for her life.
In the meantime, Josephine sits at Louise’s door, coaxing her to come out because she is worried about Louise’s heart condition. After praying that her life is long-lived, Louise agrees to come out. However, as she comes downstairs, the front door opens to reveal her husband, who had not been killed by the accident at all. Although Richards tries to keep Louise’s heart from shock by shielding her husband from view, Louise dies suddenly, which the doctors later attribute to “heart disease—of the joy that kills.”
Kate Chopin, the author of "The Story of an Hour," has become one of the most important American writers of the 19th century.
The History of Kate Chopin and the 1890s
Before we move into “The Story of an Hour” analysis section, it’s helpful to know a little bit about Kate Chopin and the world she lived in.
A Short Biography of Kate Chopin
Born in 1850 to wealthy Catholic parents in St. Louis, Missouri, Kate Chopin (originally Kate O’Flaherty) knew hardship from an early age. In 1855, Chopin lost her father, Thomas, when he passed away in a tragic and unexpected railroad accident. The events of this loss would stay with Kate for the rest of her life, eventually becoming the basis for “The Story of an Hour” nearly forty years later.
Chopin was well-educated throughout her childhood, reading voraciously and becoming fluent in French. Chopin was also very aware of the divide between the powerful and the oppressed in society at the time. She grew up during the U.S. Civil War, so she had first-hand knowledge of violence and slavery in the United States.
Chopin was also exposed to non-traditional roles for women through her familial situation. Her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother chose to remain widows (rather than remarry) after their husbands died. Consequently, Chopin learned how important women’s independence could be, and that idea would permeate much of her writing later on.
As Chopin grew older, she became known for her beauty and congeniality by society in St. Louis. She was married at the age of nineteen to Oscar Chopin, who came from a wealthy cotton-growing family. The couple moved to New Orleans, where they would start both a general store and a large family. (Chopin would give birth to seven children over the next nine years!)
While Oscar adored his wife, he was less capable of running a business. Financial trouble forced the family to move around rural Louisiana. Unfortunately, Oscar would die of swamp fever in 1882, leaving Chopin in heavy debt and with the responsibility of managing the family’s struggling businesses.
After trying her hand at managing the property for a year, Chopin conceded to her mother’s requests to return with her children to St. Louis. Chopin’s mother died the year after. In order to support herself and her children, Kate began to write to support her family.
Luckily, Chopin found immediate success as a writer. Many of her short stories and novels—including her most famous novel, The Awakening—dealt with life in Louisiana. She was also known as a fast and prolific writer, and by the end of the 1900s she had written over 100 stories, articles, and essays.
Unfortunately, Chopin would pass away from a suspected cerebral hemorrhage in 1904, at the age of 54. But Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” and other writings have withstood the test of time. Her work has lived on, and she’s now recognized as one of the most important American writers of the 19th century.
American life was undergoing significant change in the 19th century. Technology, culture, and even leisure activities were changing.
American Life in the 1890s
“The Story of an Hour” was written and published in 1894, right as the 1800s were coming to a close. As the world moved into the new century, American life was also changing rapidly.
For instance, the workplace was changing drastically in the 1890s. Gone were the days where most people were expected to work at a trade or on a farm. Factory jobs brought on by industrialization made work more efficient, and many of these factory owners gradually implemented more humane treatment of their workers, giving them more leisure time than ever.
Though the country was in an economic recession at this time, technological changes like electric lighting and the popularization of radios bettered the daily lives of many people and allowed for the creation of new jobs. Notably, however, work was different for women. Working women as a whole were looked down upon by society, no matter why they found themselves in need of a job.
Women who worked while they were married or pregnant were judged even more harshly. Women of Kate Chopin’s social rank were expected to not work at all, sometimes even delegating the responsibility of managing the house or child-rearing to maids or nannies. In the 1890s, working was only for lower class women who could not afford a life of leisure.
In reaction to this, the National American Woman Suffrage Association was created in 1890, which fought for women’s social and political rights. While Kate Chopin was not a formal member of the suffragette movements, she did believe that women should have greater freedoms as individuals and often talked about these ideas in her works, including in “The Story of an Hour.”
Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" a short exploration of marriage and repression in America.
“The Story of an Hour” Analysis
Now that you have some important background information, it’s time to start analyzing “The Story of an Hour.”
This short story is filled with opposing forces. The themes, characters, and even symbols in the story are often equal, but opposite, of one another. Within “The Story of an Hour,” analysis of all of these elements reveals a deeper meaning.
“The Story of an Hour” Themes
A theme is a message explored in a piece of literature. Most stories have multiple themes, which is certainly the case in “The Story of an Hour.” Even though Chopin’s story is short, it discusses the thematic ideas of freedom, repression, and marriage.
Keep reading for a discussion of the importance of each theme!
Freedom and Repression
The most prevalent theme in Chopin’s story is the battle between freedom and “repression.” Simply put, repression happens when a person’s thoughts, feelings, or desires are being subdued. Repression can happen internally and externally. For example, if a person goes through a traumatic accident, they may (consciously or subconsciously) choose to repress the memory of the accident itself. Likewise, if a person has wants or needs that society finds unacceptable, society can work to repress that individual. Women in the 19th century were often victims of repression. They were supposed to be demure, gentle, and passive—which often went against women’s personal desires.
Given this, it becomes apparent that Louise Mallard is the victim of social repression. Until the moment of her husband’s supposed death, Louise does not feel free. In their marriage, Louise is repressed. Readers see this in the fact that Brently is moving around in the outside world, while Louise is confined to her home. Brently uses railroad transportation on his own, walks into his house of his own accord, and has individual possessions in the form of his briefcase and umbrella. Brently is even free from the knowledge of the train wreck upon his return home. Louise, on the other hand, is stuck at home by virtue of her position as a woman and her heart condition.
Here, Chopin draws a strong contrast between what it means to be free for men and women. While freedom is just part of what it means to be a man in America, freedom for women looks markedly different. Louise’s life is shaped by what society believes a woman should be and how a wife should behave. Once Louise’s husband “dies,” however, she sees a way where she can start claiming some of the more “masculine” freedoms for herself. Chopin shows how deeply important freedom is to the life of a woman when, in the end, it’s not the shock of her husband’s return of her husband that kills Louise, but rather the thought of losing her freedom again.
Marriage as a “The Story of an Hour” theme is more than just an idyllic life spent with a significant other. The Mallard’s marriage shows a reality of 1890s life that was familiar to many people. Marriage was a means of social control—that is to say, marriage helped keep women in check and secure men’s social and political power. While husbands were usually free to wander the world on their own, hold jobs, and make important family decisions, wives (at least those of the upper class) were expected to stay at home and be domestic.
Marriage in Louise Mallard’s case has very little love. She sees her marriage as a life-long bond in which she feels trapped, which readers see when she confesses that she loved her husband only “sometimes.” More to the point, she describes her marriage as a “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.” In other words, Louise Mallard feels injustice in the expectation that her life is dictated by the will of her husband.
Like the story, the marriages Kate witnessed often ended in an early or unexpected death. The women of her family, including Kate herself, all survived their husbands and didn’t remarry. While history tells us that Kate Chopin was happy in her marriage, she was aware that many women weren’t. By showing a marriage that had been built on control and society’s expectations, Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” highlights the need for a world that respected women as valuable partners in marriage as well as capable individuals.
While this painting by Johann Georg Meyer wasn't specifically of Louise Mallard, "Young Woman Looking Through a Window" is a depiction of what Louise might have looked like as she realized her freedom.
"The Story of an Hour" Characters
The best stories have developed characters, which is the case in “The Story of an Hour,” too. Five characters make up the cast of “The Story of an Hour”:
- Louise Mallard
- Brently Mallard
- The doctor(s)
By exploring the details of each character, we can better understand their motivations, societal role, and purpose to the story.
From the opening sentence alone, we learn a lot about Louise Mallard. Chopin writes, “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.”
From that statement alone, we know that she is married, has a heart condition, and is likely to react strongly to bad news. We also know that the person who is sharing the bad news views Louise as delicate and sensitive. Throughout the next few paragraphs, we also learn that Louise is a housewife, which indicates that she would be part of the middle-to-upper class in the 1890s. Chopin also describes Louise’s appearance as “young,” “fair, calm face,” with lines of “strength.” These characteristics are not purely physical, but also bleed into her character throughout the story.
Louise’s personality is described as different from other women. While many women would be struck with the news in disbelief, Louise cries with “wild abandonment”—which shows how powerful her emotions are. Additionally, while other women would be content to mourn for longer, Louise quickly transitions from grief to joy about her husband’s passing.
Ultimately, Chopin uses Louise’s character to show readers what a woman’s typical experience within marriage was in the 1890s. She uses Louise to criticize the oppressive and repressive nature of marriage, especially when Louise rejoices in her newfound freedom.
Josephine is Louise’s sister. We never hear of Josephine’s last name or whether she is married or not. We do know that she has come with Richards, a friend of Brently’s, to break the news of his death to her sister.
When Josephine tells Louise the bad news, she’s only able to tell Louise of Brently’s death in “veiled hints,” rather than telling her outright. Readers can interpret this as Josephine’s attempt at sparing Louise’s feelings. Josephine is especially worried about her sister’s heart condition, which we see in greater detail later as she warns Louise, “You will make yourself ill.” When Louise locks herself in her room, Josephine is desperate to make sure her sister is okay and begs Louise to let her in.
Josephine is the key supporting character for Louise, helping her mourn, though she never knows that Louise found new freedom from her husband’s supposed death. But from Josephine’s actions and interactions with Louise, readers can accurately surmise that she cares for her sister (even if she’s unaware of how miserable Louise finds her life).
Richards is another supporting character, though he is described as Brently’s friend, not Louise’s friend. It is Richards who finds out about Brently Mallard’s supposed death while at the newspaper office—he sees Brently’s name “leading the list of ‘killed.’” Richards’ main role in “The Story of an Hour” is to kick off the story’s plot.
Additionally, Richard’s presence at the newspaper office suggests he’s a writer, editor, or otherwise employee of the newspaper (although Chopin leaves this to readers’ inferences). Richards takes enough care to double-check the news and to make sure that Brently’s likely dead. He also enlists Josephine’s help to break the news to Louise. He tries to get to Louise before a “less careful, less tender friend” can break the sad news to her, which suggests that he’s a thoughtful person in his own right.
It’s also important to note is that Richards is aware of Louise’s heart condition, meaning that he knows Louise Mallard well enough to know of her health and how she is likely to bear grief. He appears again in the story at the very end, when he tries (and fails) to shield Brently from his wife’s view to prevent her heart from reacting badly. While Richards is a background character in the narrative, he demonstrates a high level of friendship, consideration, and care for Louise.
Brently Mallard would have been riding in a train like this one when the accident supposedly occurred.
Mr. Brently Mallard is the husband of the main character, Louise. We get few details about him, though readers do know he’s been on a train that has met with a serious accident. For the majority of the story, readers believe Brently Mallard is dead—though the end of “The Story of an Hour” reveals that he’s been alive all along. In fact, Brently doesn’t even know of the railroad tragedy when he arrives home “travel-stained.”
Immediately after Louise hears the news of his death, she remembers him fondly. She remarks on his “kind, tender hands” and says that Brently “never looked save with love” upon her. It’s not so much Brently as it’s her marriage to him which oppresses Louise. While he apparently always loved Louise, Louise only “sometimes” loved Brently. She constantly felt that he “impose[d] a private will” upon her, as most husbands do their wives. And while she realizes that Brently likely did so without malice, she also realized that “a kind intention or a cruel intention” makes the repression “no less a crime.”
Brently’s absence in the story does two things. First, it contrasts starkly with Louise’s life of illness and confinement. Second, Brently’s absence allows Louise to imagine a life of freedom outside of the confines of marriage, which gives her hope. In fact, when he appears alive and well (and dashes Louise’s hopes of freedom), she passes away.
Though the mention of them is brief, the final sentence of the story is striking. Chopin writes, “When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of the joy that kills.” Just as she had no freedom in life, her liberation from the death of her husband is told as a joy that killed her.
In life as in death, the truth of Louise Mallard is never known. Everything the readers know about her delight in her newfound freedom happens in Louise’s own mind; she never gets the chance to share her secret joy with anyone else.
Consequently, the ending of the story is double-sided. If the doctors are to be believed, Louise Mallard was happy to see her husband, and her heart betrayed her. And outwardly, no one has any reason to suspect otherwise. Her reaction is that of a dutiful, delicate wife who couldn’t bear the shock of her husband returned from the grave.
But readers can infer that Louise Mallard died of the grief of a freedom she never had, then found, then lost once more. Readers can interpret Louise’s death as her experience of true grief in the story—that for her ideal life, briefly realized then snatched away.
In "The Story of an Hour," the appearance of hearts symbolize both repression and hope.
“The Story of an Hour” Symbolism and Motifs
Symbols are any object, word, or other element that appear in the story and have additional meanings beyond. Motifs are elements from a story that gain meaning from being repeated throughout the narrative. The line between symbols and motifs is often hazy, but authors use both to help communicate their ideas and themes.
In “The Story of an Hour,” symbolism is everywhere, but the three major symbols present in the story are:
- The heart
- The house and the outdoors
- Joy and sorrow
Heart disease, referred to as a “heart condition” within the text, opens and closes the text. The disease is the initial cause for everyone’s concern, since Louise’s condition makes her delicate. Later, heart disease causes Louise’s death upon Brently’s safe return. In this case, Louise’s ailing heart has symbolic value because it suggests to readers that her life has left her heartbroken. When she believes she’s finally found freedom, Louise prays for a long life...when just the day before, she’d “had thought with a shudder that life might be long.”
As Louise realizes her freedom, it’s almost as if her heart sparks back to life. Chopin writes, “Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously...she was striving to beat it back...Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.” These words suggest that, with her newfound freedom, the symptoms of her heart disease have lifted. Readers can surmise that Louise’s diseased heart is the result of being repressed, and hope brings her heart back to life.
Unfortunately, when Brently comes back, so does Louise’s heart disease. And, although her death is attributed to joy, the return of her (both symbolic and literal) heart disease kills her in the end.
The House and the Outdoors
The second set of symbols are Louise’s house and the world she can see outside of her window. Chopin contrasts these two symbolic images to help readers better understand how marriage and repression have affected Louise.
First of all, Louise is confined to the home—both within the story and in general. For her, however, her home isn’t a place to relax and feel comfortable. It’s more like a prison cell. All of the descriptions of the house reinforce the idea that it’s closed off and inescapable. For instance, the front door is locked when Mr. Mallard returns home. When Mrs. Mallard is overcome with grief, she goes deeper inside her house and locks herself in her room.
In that room, however, Mrs. Mallard takes note of the outdoors by looking out of her window. Even in her momentary grief, she describes the “open square before her house” and “the new spring life.” The outdoors symbolize freedom in the story, so it’s no surprise that she realizes her newfound freedom as she looks out her window. Everything about the outside is free, beautiful, open, inviting, and pleasant...a stark contrast from the sadness inside the house.
The house and its differences from outdoors serve as one of many symbols for how Louise feels about her marriage: barred from a world of independence.
Joy and Sorrow
Finally, joy and sorrow are motifs that come at unexpected times throughout “The Story of an Hour.” Chopin juxtaposes joy and sorrow to highlight how tragedy releases Louise from her sorrow and gives her a joyous hope for the future.
At first, sorrow appears as Louise mourns the death of her husband. Yet, in just a few paragraphs, she finds joy in the event as she discovers a life of her own. Though Louise is able to see that feeling joy at such an event is “monstrous,” she continues to revel in her happiness.
It is later that, when others expect her to be joyful, Josephine lets out a “piercing cry,” and Louise dies. Doctors interpret this as “the joy that kills,” but more likely it’s a sorrow that kills. The reversal of the “appropriate” feelings at each event reveals how counterintuitive the “self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being” is to the surrounding culture. This paradox reveals something staggering about Louise’s married life: she is so unhappy with her situation that grief gives her hope...and she dies when that hope is taken away.
Key Takeaways: Kate Chopin's “The Story of an Hour”
Analyzing Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” takes time and careful thought despite the shortness of the story. The story is open to multiple interpretations and has a lot to reveal about women in the 1890s, and many of the story’s themes, characters, and symbols critique women’s marriage roles during the period.
There’s a lot to dig through when it comes to “The Story of an Hour” analysis. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just remember a few things:
- Events from Kate Chopin’s life and from social changes in the 1890s provided a strong basis for the story.
- Mrs. Louise Mallard’s heart condition, house, and feelings represent deeper meanings in the narrative.
- Louise goes from a state of repression, to freedom, and then back to repression, and the thought alone is enough to kill her.
Remembering the key plot points, themes, characters, and symbols will help you write any essay or participate in any discussion. Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” has much more to uncover, so read it again, ask questions, and start exploring the story beyond the page!
What’s Next?You may have found your way to this article because analyzing literature can be tricky to master. But like any skill, you can improve with practice! First, make sure you have the right tools for the job by learning about literary elements. Start by mastering the 9 elements in every piece of literature, then dig into our element-specific guides (like this one on imagery and this one on personification.)
Another good way to start practicing your analytical skills is to read through additional expert guides like this one. Literary guides can help show you what to look for and explain why certain details are important. You can start with our analysis of Dylan Thomas’ poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” We also have longer guides on other words like The Great Gatsby and The Crucible, too.
If you’re preparing to take the AP Literature exam, it’s even more important that you’re able to quickly and accurately analyze a text. Don’t worry, though: we’ve got tons of helpful material for you. First, check out this overview of the AP Literature exam. Once you have a handle on the test, you can start practicing the multiple choice questions, and even take a few full-length practice tests. Oh, and make sure you’re ready for the essay portion of the test by checking out our AP Literature reading list!
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.