Exploring the plot structure of Kate Chopin s short story “The Story of an Hour”, analyzing how this sets the scene for the events to unfold, and then builds the tension before the climax which lays bare disturbing insights into the protagonist s character. Finally, there is rapidly falling tension briefly set out before the resolution. All these insights shed light on the cultural norms from when the story was written in the late nineteenth century.
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In the first paragraph, we the readers are introduced to Mrs. Mallard who “was afflicted with a heart trouble”(261). Her illness is described as a heart trouble indicating that it could be secondary to some other problem of a deeper nature. We have our first suspicion that Mrs. Mallard may have an incapacity in how she loves. When Mrs. Mallard is told of her husband s death, her sister “who told her, in broken sentences; veiled hints that revealed in half concealing” (261) as if Mrs. Mallard can only be told indirectly. Richard has checked and rechecked the information that Mr. Mallard has been killed, not just an ordinary accident, but a “railroad disaster” (261).
Mrs. Mallard is now a widow according to the cultural norms of the time, unlike single and married women she could legitimately be independent, have her own source of income, as well as have sympathy from all those around her. Instead of becoming “paralyzed” (261), frozen, silent, and not accepting what she is being told, she “wept at once, with sudden, wild, abandonment” (261). Then she goes alone to her room and “She would have no one follow her” (261). At that time it was considered dangerous for women even to go to their rooms alone as doing so might encourage independent thought.
Chopin now gives us a picture of the freedom inherent in widowhood. First of all is the armchair, a direct metaphor to widowhood itself. It is “roomy (261), expansive, and unrestricted, unlike the narrow closed world in which the majority of women then lived. Furthermore, the armchair faces the “open window” (261) so the reader is led to the vision of freedom, which would be thrilling to the readers of the time.
The plot moves into rising action and complication, beginning with a description of Mrs. Mallard as a normal woman of the time: “young, fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength” (261). She appears to have control over her feelings but has “a dull stare in her eyes” (261) and “not a glance of reflection, but rather indicated a suspension of intelligent thought” (262). Now we are wondering if Mrs. Mallard is mentally unstable and Chopin begs the question: Is Mrs. Mallard able to handle the complex and conflicting emotions brought on by her new state of widowhood. Chopin further increases the tension by indicating that Mrs. Mallard is now in the grip of something monstrous that threatens to overwhelm her. At first, she does not recognize it as “it was too subtle and elusive to name” (262), and only feels it “creeping out of the sky” (262), soon she is fighting it back “powerless”(262) and with ever increasing tension. She becomes so consumed with the energy of the thing that she becomes “abandoned” (262). Now she is able to name the monster; it is freedom and she whispers a word over and over free, free, free!” (262).
At this point we see Mrs. Mallard change completely from someone submissive to a woman seemingly in charge of her life: quite opposed to how women were supposed to behave in the late nineteenth century. “She did not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her” (262), she is now with “a clear and exalted perception” (262) dismissing “the suggestion as trivial” (262). This would be shocking to the readers of the time when it was unheard of for a woman to be dissatisfied about marriage and to be happy over her husband s death.
Mrs. Mallard is pictured as a caged bird trapped in an unhappy marriage, even her name is an actual bird. The birds outside the window are truly free in their simple lives. As Chopin moves up the tension towards the climax, this idea is further reinforced as we see Mrs. Mallard from being subsumed by the monster overtaking her, “striving to beat it back”(262) as if she is flapping her wings to nothing. When she has perfectly given freedom, she “opened and spread her arms out” (262) as if they are now strong wings with which she is ready to fly out of the open window.
Interestingly, Chopin states that it is both men and women who inflict their will on others. This can be understood as meaning that while Chopin wants to challenge then present norms on marriage. She is suggesting that both women and men need to understand each other more and not smash their marriage down completely.
Mrs. Mallard however, emphatically believes it s a crime to impose one s will on others. At this point in the story we begin to question her motives and whether Mrs. Mallard is committing some kind of crime. Has she gone too far in her glorification of freedom? Is she not now imposing her will on others and being unkind towards them? She dismisses an unimportant thought that she had only loved her husband .She has no regrets whatsoever that she has lost his love and care. Our sympathies now turn against her as we see her determined her own selfish ambitions.
The climax of the story comes at the point that Mrs. Mallard has rejected love. She ignores her poor sister who is worried at the other side of the door. Mrs. Mallard stands at the open window “drinking in a very elixir of life” (262) but we know by now that it is no such thing.
Mr. Mallard arrives home, not dead, but very much alive. Having not heard of the accident and it is now just an ordinary “accident”, not the “disaster” as previously described. We are shown in this scene of falling action and given descriptions of her husband entering the house. “She had died of heart disease of joy that kills” (263). The others in the house, including the doctors believe Mrs. Mallard is so overcome with joy at seeing her husband alive that it killed her.
Chopin s questions and challenges women s lack of freedom, especially within marriage. She will not go so far as to reject love. Therefore, she gives up on Mrs. Mallard who suffer from a heart disease in pursuit of her own selfish goals.
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