In the 1894 short story, “The Story of an Hour,” feminist writer Kate Chopin uses setting and symbolism of heart trouble to contrast freedom and confinement and make a social comment on the role of married women during the time period.
While the setting of the story seems limited to the Mallard house, the reader gets glimpses of the world outside. The only characters that are not in the house the entire story are the male characters, Richards and Brently Mallard. At the time of the accident Richards was in “the newspaper office” and Brently Mallard was most likely off doing something work related because he looks “travel-stained” when he returns. The fact that the women seem to be limited to the house makes a large social comment. Chopin is using the limited setting to show how women have less freedom than men and confined by their gender. The outside world seen through the eyes of Mrs. Mallard seems to shock her. When she looks out the window, after going into her private room, her gaze is “fixed away off yonder on one of those patches of blue sky.” The sky is something people see every day, yet after hearing of her husband’s death, Mrs. Mallard is in amazement of the world around her. Despite not being released from the confines of her home, “she felt it…reaching toward her” through her window and looked forward to becoming free. When she finally descends the stairs, away from the open window and her brief taste of freedom, that awe turns into complete shock at the sight of her husband, her jailor who is free to come and go.
While the heart is known to symbolize love, it’s also seen as the center of the human body and the holder of compassion and emotion. Damage to the heart often leads to death, as the heart supports the rest of the body. Mrs. Mallard’s heart trouble is mentioned in the first and last sentence of the story, nowhere else. The illness is symbolic of the emotional trouble she feels and the internal conflict she faces after learning of her husband’s death. Though she strived “to bear it back with her will,” she could not help but feel relieved at her husband’s death. She felt free when most women would have been mourning. Despite having loved him and being loved in return, she was eager to go on living without her husband. These feelings would have been seen as immoral and unnatural by her sister and Richards and by giving her heart trouble, Chopin gave her trouble with compassion and controlling her emotions. She did not show the expected emotions of a new widow. While Richards and Josephine were worried the news of Brently’s death would only cause trouble for her weak heart it gave her strength. She evens tells her sister, “I am not making myself ill.” However the shock of seeing her husband, of having the new independence that pumped through her veins run cold, her heart gave out.
In this short story, Chopin uses a limited, yet symbolic setting and the heart to send a social message about women’s lack of freedom in marriage.
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