Kate Chopin's The Story of An Hour (1894) is considered one of the finest pieces of Feminist Literature. We hope that our study guide is particularly useful for teachers and students to get the most from the story and appreciate its boldness shaking up the literary community of its time.
Mrs. Mallard - The story's protagonist, a woman with a heart condition who has just gotten news of her husband's death in a railroad disaster. We only learn her first name at the end of the story: Louise
Josephine - Her sister, whose arms she falls in when she is overcome by grief by the news
Brently Mallard - Her husband, whose name appeared on the list of "killed" in the train crash.
Richards - The husband's friend who was in the railroad office when the telegram arrived with Mallard's name on the list of "killed."
Plot Summary: Chopin basically summarizes the external events of the story in the first sentence:
"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."
It's the internal events of the story-- her range of emotions in the ensuing hour-- that constitute Chopin's real story. Mrs. Mallard was able to accept the significance of the news right away, became overcome by grief and weeping, then sat in a chair by the window, filled with a "physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul." Then she became comforted by the scene and songs outside in the new spring life, reminisced about her youth when she was strong, then her pulse rate increased and she became relaxed and warm, then happy, chanting: "Free! Body and soul free!" She envisioned years of happiness belonging just to her now.
The story ends dramatically: the front door is opened by a latchkey, Mr. Mallard enters, without even knowing about the accident, Josephine screams. Mrs. Mallard died of heart disease-- "of the joy that kills."
Genre: The Story of An Hour is considered in the genre of "modern feminist literature." Many claim that Chopin's story kicked-off the movement when it was published in 1894.
Major Theme: Women truly crave their OWN happiness, rather than belonging to their husband and adhering to social conventions that women are fulfilled and happiest in marriage.
"The Joy That Kills": Chopin's last line of the story reveals her theme of the dehabilitating effects of being surprisingly granted-- then abruptly denied-- freedom and independence; it can be detrimental to our body and soul.
Challenge Social Conventions: Rather than conform to what's expected, honor your own needs. Just because it's the way it's always been, doesn't mean it has to continue at your expense.
Situational Irony: Life's a bitch-- just when you think you're free from obligation, you go and die yourself, which kind of makes liberation a bit pointless. Chopin's story is a great example of the literary device called situational irony.
Feminist literature, both fiction and non-fiction, supports feminist goals for the equal rights of women in their economic, social, civic, and political status relative to men. Such literature dates back to the 15th century (The Tale of Joan of Arc by Christine de Pisan), Mary Wollstonecraft in the 18th century, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Perkins Gilman, and Louisa May Alcott. Kate Chopin's best known novel, The Awakening (1899) and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's A New England Nun (1891) led the emerging modern feminist literary movement into the 20th century, during which women earned the right to vote, fought for economic, social, political, educational, and reproductive rights with Gloria Steinem and the Women's Liberation Movement. The 21st century has brought a resurgence of interest in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale with a new streaming video series, and the Women's March After President Trump's Inauguration (2017) drew more than a million protesters in cities throughout the country and world.
It's helpful to know the list of grievances and demands a group of activitists (mostly women) published in The Declaration of Sentiments in 1848. Principal author and first women's conference organizer was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with high-profile support from abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Many more struggles and attempts to change public opinion followed the conference; it took 72 more years for women to secure the right to vote.
Explain what the following quotes mean and how they relate to the story:
“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."
“She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance."
“When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her."
“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."
"'Free, free, free!'' The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright."
"What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in the face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!"
"When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease--of the joy that kills."
1. Why does Chopin introduce the reader to her protagonist as "Mrs. Mallard" rather than by her first name?
2. Name each emotion that Chopin experiences throughout this hour, and how long each emotion may have lasted (some were quick, while others lasted longer)
3. Describe the significance of her sudden recognition of self-assertion: "Free! Body and soul free!"
4. Explain the symbolism of the blue sky, both in her reminiscence as a young girl, and now, as she looks out the window.
5. Chopin describes a broad range of emotions throughout the story. In the end, what do you think really killed Louisa?
6. Discuss this story's relevance to the Feminist Movement, its themes and underlying message. Why was Chopin's work controversial?
7. After reading the story once, re-read it, this time examine Chopin's precise word choice early in the story, her use of veiled hints, and describe her ability to "fool" her casual reader. What's the irony in her dramatic ending?
8. When people say the story takes us "on an emotional journey" what do they mean? What message does Chopin wish to convey with this controversial work?
9. Elaborate on Chopin's uses of irony:
1) Situational Irony: when she gets her freedom, she dies anyway
2) Verbal irony: What is said explicitly is much different than the text's inferences (thinking rather than saying). Reacting to news of a spouse's death with relief, nevermind "monstrous joy" is an "inappropriate" response, for sure. She keeps these thoughts in her head (whispering her chant), with the door closed.
10. Discuss the concept of repression and Chopin's assertion of her real cause of death: "the joy that kills."
11. Read Chopin's allegory about freedom from a cage, her short-short story, Emancipation: A Life Fable. Compare its theme, tone, symbols, and use of irony to this story.
Essay Prompt: Tell the same story from Josephine's point of view (remember, Louisa keeps her door shut most of the time).
Essay Prompt: Consider reading the one act play by Susan Glaspell, Trifles (1916), about a murder trial which challenges our perceptions of justice and morality. Compare it to Chopin's The Story of An Hour
Essay Prompt: Read Kate Chopin's biography (feel free to extend your research to other sources). How does her personal story reflect her writing?
Feminist Approaches to Literature, read more about the genre
History of Feminism, an introduction
Is It Actually Ironic? TED-Ed lessons on irony
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