Friday, August 24, 2018

Kate Chopin - The Story of an Hour (Overview)

As you might have come to realize, short stories are my favorite literary genre because they are like little cans of double concentrated tomato paste that add that extra zing to narratives other genres are incapable of delivering. In fact, the shorter the story, the grander the zing. 

Well, Kate Chopin's story is as short as good short stories come and she manages to deliver the goods quicker than the title she chose for her piece. The advantage of such crisp little tales is that they're easier to dissect because of the limited number of words they contain. Every sentence and paragraph can be analyzed almost ad nauseam, a task too gruelling to undertake when reading a novel. Because of this comprehensive examination, the full extent of an author's powers is appreciated and though many would be prone to conclude that restricted tales offer very few developments, angles and insights, the reader's knowledge that every word written was mindfully selected by the author opens up boundless lanes of interpretation, all made possible by the deliberateness with which a narrative's fabric has been woven.

In The Story of an Hour, Louise Mallard rises and falls. She is one of the most complex characters I've come across not because she is protractedly defined like another Raskolnikov, but because so many questions arise that demand answers only from a mere 20 paragraphs of narrative. She intrigues me in ways second-half-of-the-19th-century Estella Havisham, Emma Bovary or Bathsheba Everdene never managed to achieve because so much and so little is given by way of character development (and that, my friends, is the very essence of allure).


Ultimately, we wonder whether she is the victim of her own logic and restraint, a passive conformist to society's conventions or simply the ungrateful villain for not having loved her husband, described in the story as having looked upon her with nothing but love. It is these questions, making readers turn to seek the reasons behind the malaise or lack of permanence evident in so many marriages these days, that establish such a minuscule story among the most prescient and enduringly contemporary tales of its kind.

 

You can read the story here.

The notes that follow should help teachers and students cover several aspects of the story and provide the basis for discussion and assignments. 





Kate Chopin – The Story of an Hour





Life

    • 1850 –1904, American
    • wrote stories published in national magazines
    • stories were controversial (some were called immoral)
    • her novel, The Awakening, considered early feminist work
    • marries at 20, has 6 children
    • at 32, she is widowed and left with her husband’s debt
    • she runs his business for 2 yrs before selling it
    • her mother helps her financially until her death
    • Chopin begins writing to overcome her ensuing depression and as a source of income



Setting

    • spring
    • modern / industrial age (telegram, railroad)



Plot

    • news arrives that Louise Mallard’s husband, Brently Mallard, has died in a railroad disaster
    • Louise is surrounded by those close to her (her sister, her husband’s friend Richards) who have come to break the news to her and support her, as she suffers from a weak heart (“heart trouble”)
    • Louise’s 1st reaction to the news: cries in her sister’s arms (“storm of grief”)
    • Louise then goes to sit in her room alone
    • there, she imagines life without her husband and realizes she is free to do as she pleases
    • she is elated at the thought of such independence and freedom
    • her sister implores her to come out, fearing she will harm herself locked away in her room
    • Louise comes out, descends
    • as she does so, Brently Mallard unlocks the front door (he had been nowhere near the site of the accident)
    • Louise sees him, dies of a heart attack: as the doctors said, she died of “the joy that kills”



Characters

    • Louise Mallard
      • how others see her
        • in need of support:
          • her sister and Richards are there to comfort her: reason they are there = Louise is physically weak (heart trouble) and so by extension is sentimentally/mentally weak as well
          • 1st sentence of story:
            • passive voice used (echoes passivity in general)
            • generalization: “Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted…” (who knows? – it is implied that generally everyone knew; it’s highly unlikely that anyone delved deeper into this heart trouble of hers – it was what it was and nothing could be done about it)
        • she is like one of many
          • nothing odd about being the recipient of such bad news (“ She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same …”)
          • this is another example of passivity and generalization in the story
        • others suppose she loves her husband deeply
          • that is why others want to break the news gently
          • the doctors’ diagnosis at the end of the story suggests this
      • what she truly is
        • woman with a heart condition
          • raises the question “Could her marriage + existence be the cause of her weak heart?”
          • “white, slender hands” frailty
        • unlike other women
          • her reaction to the news wasn’t “paralyzed inability” to understand reality
          • implies she’s quick to grasp; difficulties don’t overpower her
        • spontaneous / passionate
          • words used point towards this:
            • she wept with “wild abandonment”
            • “When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips.” This realization of freedom, which is the turning point for her (epiphany), is implicitly described as an act of sexual pleasure / erotic culmination
              • all observations in that paragraph suggest this
                • breathing becomes faster = “bosom rose and fell tumultuously”
                • eyes = “keen and bright”
                • “her pulses beat faster”
                • her blood courses
                • her blood “warmed and relaxed every inch of her body”
                • in the next paragraph: she spreads her arms out in welcome
        • lonely / an observer
          • reader surmises she spent many days in that “comfortable, roomy armchair” facing the window in her room
          • note: Chopin writes that Louise went away to “her room” and not “the bedroom” or “their room, her husband’s and hers”. This is the place where she retires from her married life to observe life outside her home
        • physically exhausted
          • sentimental tiredness leads to physical tiredness: Chopin’s use of words “heart trouble” instead of “weak heart”, “heart disease”, “heart condition” imply other complications (had she fallen in love with someone else?)
          • “… pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.” choice of “haunted” = recurrent event; shows years of persistent mental pressure
        • repressed yet persistent
          • lines on her face “bespoke repression and even a certain strength”
          • repression: double meaning giving rise to ambiguous marriage
            • repression caused by husband: subjugation of Louise
            • repression exercised by Louise: self-control of emotions, Louise checks her thoughts, prevents them from being exposed
          • strength: came from years of patience + isolation, possibly spent by the window looking out at the square
        • logical
          • her epiphany is made possible through her “suspension of intelligent thought”: thought + reflection were what kept her going all these years
          • logic was a means of self-defense / survival technique: explaining difficulties + boring life rationally gave her purpose, why she had to follow conventions, stay married to Brently OR
          • she was programmed to see things logically (by society, upbringing): central motto = what is, is / preserve the status quo
            • women trapped in a submissive role, no independence, belonged to their husbands/fathers
            • by closing her mind to what she was taught, she abandons herself to thoughts of freedom + independence considered a folly in those days
          • this suspension of intelligent thought turns to “fancy … running riot”
        • giving / sacrificial or weak?
          • spent her life living for others/ her husband: “There would be no one to live for during those coming years”
          • weakness due to her husband’s powerful will that bent hers (even love-making was not her choice: “Body and soul free!”)
        • a changed being
          • logical irrational, fanciful, is carried away by reveries
          • subdued, low-key selfish, animated
          • hated her life can’t wait to relish it
          • exhausted raring to go
          • a captive a free spirit
      • Louise’s epiphany
        • Chopin calls it “that brief moment of illumination”
        • Louise realizes the “strongest impulse of her being” = “possession of self-assertion”
        • life spent living for others turns to selfish joy of independence + freedom: saw many years she would have that belonged “to her absolutely”

    • Josephine
      • Louise’s sister
      • supportive
      • doesn’t know her sister well at all

    • Richards
      • husband's friend
      • cautious: goes to newspaper office to make sure news of the disaster was real
      • protective of Louise: goes to break the news gently to her / moves quickly to screen him from his wife at the end of the story
      • possible latent feelings on his part towards Louise:
        • he checks to make sure accident has occurred but not if his friend is really dead (his concern falls not on his friend, but on Louise): “He had only taken the time to assure himself of its truth … had hastened to forestall any less careful, less tender friend in bearing the sad message.”
        • “Her husband’s friend Richards was there too, near her”: take note of last 2 words

    • Brently Mallard
      • Louise’s husband
      • decent man and husband: “kind, tender hands” / he looked upon her with love
      • was nowhere near the scene of the accident / has no idea it had occurred: this summarizes him he is a man ignorant of what is truly going on around him (doesn’t see Louise is suffering in this marriage)
      • imposed his will on her like all spouses do (regardless of the intention)



Themes

    • flaw of over-confidence
      • belief that nothing can go wrong leads to demise
      • confidence in one’s power to foresee or to paint a rosy picture of things to come
      • linked to primordial sin / hubris / pride (see room motif below which ties Louise to this capital sin)

    • unpredictability / change of fate
      • things in life don’t always go as planned or expected
      • deus ex machina device used at the start and end of story
        • train accident changes Louise’s life
        • Brently’s return changes Louise’s fate again
      • what is given may very easily be taken away

    • marriage
      • difficulty of husband-wife relationships lies in lack of balance between spouses
      • pessimistic view of marriage: marriage is a state whereby one imposes one’s will on another fellow creature
      • marriage = incarceration of one or both parties involved

    • freedom
      • central question asked = what does it mean to be free in a partnership?
      • freedom as forbidden fruit: Louise’s realization is equated in her mind with something terrible
        • “There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully.”
        • this thing is “subtle”, “elusive”, it is “creeping” and comes to “possess her” as she tries to “beat it back with her will”
        • the “look of terror” becomes a “monstrous joy” 3 sentences later

    • self-realization
      • Chopin invites readers to explore people’s need to “recognize … the strongest impulse of [their] being!”
      • how important is it to understand who you really are and what you truly want from life?
      • how important is it to have such an epiphany at the right moment in one’s life? (would things have been different for Louise had she understood earlier in her marriage who she was and what she wanted?)



Motifs / symbols

    • window
      • portal to a new plain of existence
      • it is the means through which she sees the world, how others live
      • Louise must have looked through it countless times but never drunk the “elixir of life” she was drinking “through that open window”
      • it is the barrier between her domestic life and her place in society: once the window opens and she allows herself to breath in the "elixir of life" through it, she is able to reconcile her life with what society dictates her life should be like

    • room
      • Louise retires to it at the beginning of the story and orders everyone to stay out: like royalty, she retires to her chambers
      • words used by Chopin or the description of Louise’s movements sound formal / regal
        • “She would have no one follow her.”
        • “She arose at length and opened the door …”
        • “… she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of victory.”
      • the room transforms her: she enters it a widow, sinks into an armchair, pressed down by physical exhaustion, but exits it a deity (it’s as if Louise is punished in the end for believing she had become mistress of her own existence; she has dared to raise herself to the level of God who commands people's fate)

    • rain / spring / sparrows
      • rain: catharsis, cleansing, water that purifies or rebaptizes Louise
      • spring: new life, new beginnings
      • sparrows:
        • as any bird, it is related to freedom (cf. expression ‘free as a bird’)
        • ancient Greece: linked to the goddess Aphrodite; refers to both love and lust
        • biblical reference: even the smallest and most insignificant creature has value in God’s eyes
        • ancient Egypt: catcher of souls of those recently deceased
        • European folklore: omen of death (if it flies into a house)



Irony

    • strongest undercurrent in the story
    • verbal irony: “the joy that kills”
      • employed by Chopin, though doctors who state it are unaware how ironic it is for the reader
      • literally, Louise’s joy (racing pulse, rapid breathing) at being free brought on her heart attack
    • situational irony: the exact opposite occurs of what readers expect to happen
      • readers believe the story will end pleasantly for Louise
      • readers expect Brently’s funeral, but Louise is the one who dies (what started with Brently’s death ends up with Louise’s)
    • dramatic irony: experienced by Louise herself (as well as readers)
      • readers and Louise are aware that something wonderful is taking place behind closed doors, while Josephine and Richards are worried Louise is making herself sick






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