The Aesthetics of a Growing Sense of Self

Kate Chopin’s (1850–1904) “The Story of an Hour” (1894) is a captivating short story that presents a woman’s growing sense of freedom. The significance of it as a little narrative – the shortest I know – is that Louise Mallard believes her husband is dead and unexpectedly experiences something that immediately changes a moment of grief into a short period of enlightened thought of her position. She is awakened to a strong sense of freedom which she is ready to accept as a widow; however, her excitement is born out of knowing her husband has passed away which poses questions of the characters morality. But there is extremely little known of her husband, so how does the narrator present her? The beautiful, mesmerizing short story presents a woman faced with tragic news, but she places herself outside of this tragedy in a rather short period of time (hence, the title) and, more importantly, with intriguing contemplation on her part. This is what always draws me to the story, and Kate Chopin, in about a thousand words, gives us something immediately striking but affecting throughout because of her use of words. It fascinates because of what we are gradually told of Louise’s thoughts and how they’re put to an end.

Louise Mallard takes a somewhat unexpected emotional journey that pose questions on her conscience. She receives tragic news that her husband has died in a railroad accident. Her first reaction is strong; she gives in to a “storm of grief” which is natural given the news of the death of a loved one. She resumes sobbing alone in her room; afterwards, though, she possesses a dull stare, which is “not a glance of reflection, but rather indicated a suspension of intelligent thought.” The narrator goes on to draw a slowly born sensation: an oddly described, gradually approaching feeling that’s filling the air, seizing her and that seems to fearfully excite her. Louise does not want to accept it at first, but when se abandons herself to this feeling, she realizes she is “free.” Intriguingly, she is terrified at first—but she appears to warm to this newfound feeling: she is free of marriage and of a husband.

Chopin’s protagonist disrupts the traditional mourning situation where Louise seems immorally quick to change her outlook – quick, for the story takes place in the span of an hour from the tragic revelation. The husband, apparently, “never looked save with love upon her,” but she is welcoming the prospect of the coming years that “would belong to her absolutely.” Now that Louise has surrendered herself to the initially terrifying, yet exciting, feeling of being rid of a partner, she also experiences a moment of enlightenment. She sees the future as entirely “living for herself” and realizes suddenly that this will also bring a freedom of will – freedom to her own desires – for Louise perceives in this “moment of illumination” how men and women tend to bend another person’s will, which she begins to see as utterly wrong since she describes it “a crime.” This brings complexity to Louise, making it a bit difficult to judge her morality for, as modern readers, we can understand the unfairness of one’s attempt to bend another’s volition – particularly if the victim is a woman. Moreover, because this is a “moment of illumination,” it could be interpreted that this poor woman is only now waking to a sense of self with complete volition.

What makes me always wonder is whether Louise’s change needs significant sympathizing. The narrator, and Louise Mallard, appear unreliable since very little information and description of her husband, Brently, is given. Nevertheless, she reveals another “illuminating” thing: “in the face of this possession of self-assertion,” Louise also realizes that her love for her husband had never been significant. It seems that true love for her partner was nonexistent because she describes love an “unsolved mystery.” Certainly, this may demand the question of what then is “love”; but the philosophy of love is not under analysis, so what I mean by this is how Louise’s “self-assertion” beats grieving over a lost husband because, apparently, there was no actual love—for “[w]hat did it matter!” she says in her newfound way of being, now that she is widowed.

This, in my view, brutal honesty is such a fascinating character development that makes me think if Louise is being moral. But it is also refreshing, and alluring, reading this sort of frankness. Isn’t it better to not see a woman completely swept away by sadness and depression? Also, because there is little description of him, we do not know whether Louise and Brently truly loved each other, or knew each other deeply for that matter, and if the marriage was to merely follow their society’s ways. Conversely, then, the way in which Chopin chooses to build this gradually developing enlightening moment fascinates in its tone of describing what seems like an awakening.

Chopin tells of this apprehending the possibilities that could face Louise by writing in a sympathetic manner, where the narrator builds a mesmerizing picture of a woman awakening to a sense of an independent self, and not be struck and defined by tragedy. Rather than giving a sad picture, Louise’s glance indicates “a suspension of intelligent thought;” she is roused rather than dull and depressed for she feels something “creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.” Excited, Louise recognizes she is “free, free, free!”, emphasizing by repetition what she is feeling and when the terror of this leaves her, she becomes rather warm and relaxed. The narrator, though, tells us that Louise would certainly mourn her husband when she would say her last goodbye, but not beyond that for she has a life ahead of her—years to which “she opened and spread her arms out … in welcome.”

The image, then, is quite aesthetic. Chopin’s aesthetic helps to be sympathetic and to consider Louise Mallard’s situation as a woman awakening to a sense of self which is important in forming one’s own identity. The story prosperously expresses that Louise “would live for herself” and effectively presents this in positive light by explaining that this brings freedom for her own volition. As she also seems to confess that her love had been rather superficial, the narrator still manages to show Louise attractively as a woman who has strong self-assertion which, given the situation, is admirable—and considering the time period, brave as well. Then—the final recognition, and the most beautiful moment to Louise, appearing now to have awakened completely. She whispers to herself some of the most beautiful words one could imagine: ‘“Free! Body and soul free!”’

The idea of an “awakening” and a growing sense of self of the protagonist can also be given a feminist reading which, then, adds to the complexity of interpreting Louise’s conscience. According to Michael Worton (2008), Chopin’s female protagonists are generally “much more than simple rebels against either materialism or patriarchal oppression.” He explains that her tales are not so much about individual women’s efforts to achieve complete autonomy from men, “but that they start on a journey towards a great sense of selfness” (108). Chopin’s stories have many complex protagonists who as ladies of the nineteenth century are unconventional in their ways. They are indifferent to motherhood and marriage and pursue independence as women instead of as merely wives or mothers. Chopin’s stories, then, concerning women following their own volition, demonstrate the development of a clearer notion of self and also its complexity, which is crucial to develop one’s own identity. While “The Story of an Hour” does not present as multifaceted a character as Edna Pontellier in The Awakening (1899), who possesses one of the most unique and complicated personalities – a chaotic thing in her nineteenth century environment with fixed ideas of women as wives and mothers – Louise Mallard, nevertheless also shows a dramatic moment of awakening in, perhaps, a simpler sense where a woman left to herself is not stricken by terror of her newfound situation, but welcomes it as a chance to continue life that belongs entirely to her.

Thus, Chopin presents us a new Louise Mallard, but unfortunately gives her an ironic end, adding to the mesmerizing aesthetic of the story. It comes to signify the importance of her newfound feeling of freedom: Louise’s awakening becomes so significant that she appears to be “drinking in a very elixir of life,” and her beautifully hopeful situation is made more substantial when we are told: “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.” Tragically, her life is put to an immediate end after this hour of “illuminated” contemplation, when she sees her husband entering their house. Louise already suffered from a weak heart, and the doctors interpret her shock as “the joy that kills.” It could now never be revealed that Louise Mallard had actually become an enlightened widow of her prospects as a woman living purely for herself, instead of as someone’s wife and living through them. This chance of having all “those days ahead of her[,] [s]pring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own” – too greatly affected her in that one hour to let go of. After all that sense of freedom, it seemed impossible.

“The Story of an Hour” becomes a striking example of a short story, and Chopin writes a gripping perspective to a moment that is born out of a tragedy. Her protagonist becomes “illuminated” rather than depressed and appears confident in her chances as a widow who will go on living, at least hopefully, a long life. Evidently, there can be found actual context to this: Emily Toth (2008) writes that “[b]y 1894, Chopin had been widowed for nearly twelve years” and while she did reflect on her husband and expressed that she “would unhesitatingly give up everything … and join [her] existence again” with his if he came back – meaning she would “have to forget the past ten years of [her real] growth” in her wisdom – there was also a strong sense of contentment:

[…] she also treasured her independence, her coffee, her cigarettes, her card-playing and her own home. She had grown up with contented widows, and she was not interested in marrying any of her admirers. (23)

Toth, then, also describes Chopin’s writing in this case as sympathizing with “women who revel in being widows” (22) – one of them being Louise, which poses a question on the ethics of writing her story. Given Chopin’s personal life, she is justified to write about a widowed woman and according to Toth, she did mourn her husband’s death with a “deep grief” (14); however, her way of building “The Story of an Hour” with a sudden realization of a free life, and ironically ending it after the thought, could be interpreted as experimental. Chopin seems to wonder, what would happen if one’s husband came back; after a strong, contented sense of freedom.

Her story suggests, in the case of Louise, that this would almost be a tragedy to an enlightened woman who probably never truly wanted to get married if she had deeply thought about it. In my experience, Chopin seems to want me to wonder if Louise perhaps saw the years ahead of her not only as absolutely belonging to her, but also as a chance to become the most intellectual version of herself. This is what had happened to Chopin who, after becoming a widow, in a few years went on and resolved to actively write and, in fact, became a significant intellectual who even established a salon in St. Louis in 1884 – attended by “[w]riters, professors, artists and visiting celebrities … where the conversation was … vibrant and witty” (20). With Chopin, it possibly took a while—with Louise, the sensation was immediate, and it appears that Chopin sympathizes with this and wonders herself, what if her awakening to this sensation had come earlier and had been equally striking.

 

Sources:

Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.” 1894

Phelan, James: "Narrative Ethics". In: Hühn, Peter et al. (eds.): the living handbook of narratology. Hamburg: Hamburg University. URL = https://www.lhn.uni-hamburg.de/node/108.html

Toth, Emily. “What We Do and Don’t Know about Kate Chopin’s Life.” The Cambridge Companion to Kate Chopin, edited by Janet Beer, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008, pp. 13–26. Cambridge Companions to Literature.

Worton, Michael. “Reading Kate Chopin through Contemporary French Feminist Theory.” The Cambridge Companion to Kate Chopin, edited by Janet Beer, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008, pp. 105–117. Cambridge Companions to Literature