The Dichotomy of Marriage

Exploring the perspective offered by Kate Chopin in her 1894 work, “The Story of An Hour” through the eyes of Mrs. Louise Mallard.

At the start we find out that Mrs. Mallard has just received the news that her husband has died in a railroad accident. Now, one would assume that the story would continue on in the ‘natural’ way; that is that Mrs. Mallard will be a grieving wife for the rest of the story as the readers explore her reaction and emotions. It is here that Chopin changes that expectation, though; Mrs. Mallard does not react as we expect, and this is the crux of the whole story. We all have expectations of how marriage should be and how a husband or wife should act if one were to die. By changing expectations, Chopin is presenting the idea that rarely does reality actually achieve this view- that marriage often falls short of the ideals that are created about it and that not everyone who gets married believes these ideals. 

She first starts by focusing on Mrs. Mallard herself; her life and her relations. Chopin establishes that she is a married woman with heart troubles- this immediately causes the reader to picture this weak woman who is connected to her husband. The story continues in this fashion, as she learns about her husband’s death. She learned of this from her sister Josephine and her husband’s friend, Richards. Notice that even though Mrs. Mallard is the main character of the story, she does not gain the right of her first name. Her sister Josephine, her husband’s friend Richards, and even her husband -Brently Mallard- are immediately given their names upon their introduction while Mrs. Mallard is not. All that exists of her right now is the name she was given upon her marriage to her husband; it doesn’t actually show her personality or character as a person, none of it inherently hers. With this, Chopin immediately sets her up as an accessory to Mr. Brently Mallard from the very start of the story and nothing more. 

As stated before, upon learning that Brently Mallard has died, the reader makes assumptions- such that the story will be focused on Mrs. Mallard’s grief towards the loss of her husband and the emotions that she feels directly after this. This is true, but as the reader goes on through the story and learns more, a gap is created. This gap is between what the readers expect Mrs. Mallard to feel and what Mrs. Mallard actually feels. It is in this gap that Chopin takes societal norms and flips them on their head: Mrs. Mallard is not a typical housewife, instead she is one who follows society’s rules yet holds no true belief in them. That is shown in her opinion of her husband and their marriage. It is from reading her thoughts on these two topics that the true objective of the short story is shown; of the idealized view that people have of marriage, the relationship between a husband and a wife, and the true reality that exists between Mrs. and Mr. Mallard.

She begins to show this after she leaves her sister Josephine and her husband’s friend Richards and locks herself alone in a room. When she was with those two, she did not speak once. She only wept immediately in her sister’s arms before she quickly left to be by herself. It is when she is alone in a room that that gap is created- that her emotions and words truly speak for themselves. It is here that we learn our first description of Mrs. Mallard- something other than her husband or her heart troubles. The first thing is that she is “young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength”. This single line completely changes our perception of Mrs. Mallard; usually when one hears about a wife with a heart problem who has now become a widow, they picture an older woman who is weak with age, but this is not Mrs. Mallard. She is a young woman of quiet strength, calm even in the event of the announcement of her husband’s death. This begins to change the idea that the readers have created about their marriage. Chopin is slowly taking the reader from the abstract ideal of marriage and implanting them in the specific marriage of Mr. Brently Mallard and Mrs. Mallard. It is no longer a broad ideal now; it is something individualized.

It is as we focus back on the previously quoted line that something else jumps out: “whose lines bespoke of repression”. What exactly is Chopin connecting this repression to? That is revealed by the first words Mrs. Mallard ever speaks in this story, “free, free, free!”. Instead of being remorseful and full of grief towards her husband’s death, she is instead filled with a “monstrous joy”. She knows that when she sees her dead husband lying in the coffin that she will cry again for the man who had loved her dearly, but she is now looking on “a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome”. This immediately leads the reader to believe that, while Mrs. Mallard had a caring husband, she did not enjoy the marriage itself- this is shown by the fact that, upon locking herself in her room after learning of her husband’s death that “…the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air” showing that such things did not exist in her marriage to Brently. With this renewed sense of worth and life, “She would live for herself. There would be no 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”. It is this last line that shows fully Mrs. Mallard’s ideas towards marriage- to her it was an oppressive system; that while her husband loved her, she felt controlled by him and like she could not live for herself. She did not enjoy marriage like she was expected to by society, by the rights a husband and wife have towards one another. It is the idea that for Mrs. Mallard, marriage was a silly idea that society forced on men and women so that they would live a certain way. It was not a great ideal to follow, but an oppressive system that was created to control people, she declares with these words.

This revelation leads us to a previous point brought up earlier in this essay. For the first time, we learn Mrs. Mallard’s first name from her sister: “Louise.” All she sees now is the future that exists ahead of her; that she can live how she wishes, free from the bondage of marriage. She can now be her own person, free from the shadow of her husband, gaining back her own name- something so integral to a person’s identity. This idea is shown in a parallel as she states that, “She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long”. This reveals that her hatred of marriage is not something she realized after learning of her husband’s death. Though young, she has been disillusioned with marriage for a long time and is ecstatic that such a controlling system is gone from her life; that it can no longer force itself on her. This hope and excitement is not to last though, as the sequence of events so far are flipped on their heads. This occurs when a living Brently Mallard walks into the house and the revelation is given that he was not involved in the railroad disaster.

This scene leads to a powerful reaction by Louise Mallard. Upon seeing her ‘deceased’ husband still alive, the tables are turned and it is now her who is dead- just “his wife” once again. But what did she die from? The line states that, “When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease–of the joy that kills”. Looking at the rest of the short story, it seems that there is a gap between the joy the doctors thought killed her and what Louise Mallard actually felt. As she is now dead, she cannot explain to them or make the case to us that she died due to the loss of joy, the loss of freedom at seeing her husband alive again. When the reader compares this death to her previous thoughts, it is clear to see what killed her. The doctors don’t know this, though, so they assume what society would assume; she was so happy to see that her husband was alive that the quick change from grief to joy was too much for her weak heart to take. Now, it is rather the opposite- that the quick change between the joy of being free from the bonds of marriage to the grief at seeing her husband alive was what killed her.

It is as this story finishes that we reach the conclusion of this argument and the thesis. In this story both the doctors, society, and Mr. Brently Mallard see marriage as an ideal- shown by the doctor’s diagnosis of her cause of death and of Brently Mallard’s love for her. For Louise Mallard, marriage was not something she believed in or desired. She did not wish to be married, but had to listen to the demands of society. Though young and loved by her husband, she felt controlled by him in their relationship just because they were married. Upon learning of his death and secluding herself, she was filled with joy that she was freed from this control- she could now live as she had always wanted to. She was finally “Free! Body and soul free!”. This is completely contrasted by the next scene: Brently Mallard walks into the room, still alive and unaware of what happened while he was gone. This was too much for her heart- the change from such joy to such grief -that it caused Louise to die. She has finally escaped the bonds of marriage- but only through her own death rather than the life she wanted. For Louise Mallard, marriage was an oppressive system that controlled her life- she did not buy into it like everyone else and her husband Brently Mallard had. All she wanted was to escape its control; to not be a slave to it anymore. In the end, she gained her wish: through death, she escaped the oppressive system of marriage. Now she was finally “free, free, free!” just not in the way she expected to be. 

While this is not my particular view on marriage(a bit too dour and dark for my tastes), I do think it is an incredibly interesting perspective for the author to take. Many people in the world do view marriage in such a way and this story allows them a voice. From what we can tell in the story, Mrs. Brently Mallard was not an abusive husband which would lead many to more quickly understand Louise’s reaction, leading to a brief befuddlement at first when they realize that this is not the case. For some people, marriage is an empowering thing, granting them security and strength through the support of another person. But for others, it shackles and binds them, tearing away their independence and their sense of self, making them feel more like an object of property(branded by their husband’s name) than a true person.

There can even be a mix of both in life- a woman can meet a man, fall in love, and get married with excitement, only to suddenly feel pressure from their new role as a ‘wife’, the responsibilities growing when they become ‘mothers’. Maybe this was even the case for Mrs. Louise Mallard. Many wife’s and mother’s admit to feeling like they have lost themselves through the progression of their marriage; lost their hobbies, desires, dreams, and independence. For this reason, I am grateful for the perspective of marriage that Kate Chopin offers here as it shines a light on an issue not often mentioned or talked about in society, yet one that is deeply rooted in the lives of many women. It’s also really interesting that this is written in the late 1800s; the issue of women’s rights and suffrage had practically dissolved by this time due to a split within the various groups and it would be two decades before it would truly regain power and successfully lead to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Yet here is Kate Chopin, writing such a progressive work of literature about the affect of marriage on independent women in the break between all of that. It really is an incredible accomplishment how much she has fit in considering how short this story really is, especially based on the fact that it is such a popular story even today, over a century after its publication.

Link to the Story