Story of an Hour: Symbolism
During Kate Chopin’s marriage she resided in Louisiana where the laws favored the husband in a type of patriarchal code. At the time women were subjected to a lesser role and the husband’s will was freely imposed upon their wives. In “The Story of an Hour” much of Chopin’s desire for the prospect of freedom is reflected to us through the character of Mrs. Mallard. The societal norms of the late 1800’s dictated that women would assume the feminine role and live for their husbands; as a woman’s place was to reside in the shadow of her man.
Through the rich use of symbolism Chopin illustrates how the confinement created by social inequality illuminates our innate desire for freedom. The heart is a repeated conventional symbol used that reinforces Mrs.
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Mallard’s internal and external restrictions set upon her. “Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death” (115). Immediately it is revealed that Mrs. Mallard suffers from heart trouble that not only is the cause of her death, but a burden she carries throughout the story.
The heart is often used to symbolize a loving relationship, but here her troubled heart symbolizes her troubled marriage. Just like her heart she has no control over her marriage and she constantly feels the imposing will of her husband lurking around. The news of her husband’s death acts as a catalyst and sets off a chain reaction of repressed emotions within Mrs. Mallard that ignite her awareness of what has occurred. With the presence of her husband evaporating from her conscience, the prospect of freedom is so tantalizing that she cannot help but feel pure bliss.
The shackles placed on her by her husband were as real as her troubled heart, and with his passing these shackles were unlocked and she had been set free. “Free, free, free! ” (116) as “Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body” (116). Both her body and mind had been revitalized; she was free to live. Just like the literal use of opening a window, the open window Mrs. Mallard gazes out of symbolizes the releasing of her past life, and replacing it with the new uninhibited world she now has access to. She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. ” (115). In contrast to her heart troubles and the death of her husband, there was a world teeming with life in front of her. The open window presented the ideal view of tree tops full of life and the scent of the rain beckoning at her. Perhaps this world was always there, but the mere existence of her husband inhibited her field of vision leaving her to only see what he saw.
Although the world around her had not changed, the realization that she was her own woman now was enough to alter her perspective. The monotone and bleak world she once saw was now abundant with songbirds and vibrant colors. All the restrictions had been lifted off of her shoulders like fresh air coming through the now open window. Freedom was a few mere steps away for her, ready to be seized. Death can be interpreted in many ways, but in “The Story of an Hour” death symbolizes the greatest freedom attainable. It is an ironic freedom as Mrs.
Mallard will never be aware that she has obtained it, but nonetheless it will forever be hers. Death is straightforward, because in death we lose everything. When Mrs. Mallard suddenly dies from the sight of her unscathed husband, the doctor comes to the conclusion that “she had died of heart disease – of joy that kills” (116). The doctor assumes that her death was caused by the joy from her husband, whom she thought to be dead, but in fact something else has caused it. Mrs. Mallard died from the shock created by the mere idea that her new found freedom and self possession was to be stolen from her.
Having just attained her sense of self possession, she immediately knows that the presence of her husband means going back to the confined life she knew. She would be the wife living, even cowering under the power her husband held. “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” (116). Day to day life under the power of her significant other was detrimental to Mrs. Mallard and it was only yesterday that she hoped for a quick death and freedom. Mrs.
Mallard’s fear of losing her new found freedom displays how significant being free was to her. The loss of her freedom created more of a shock then the death of her husband and perhaps it was her fate to die by the hands of her husband. Whether it was literally by her husband’s hands, her own suicide, or her heart giving out, they all reflect back on the husband and the social inequality she felt. Unable to withstand the impact of losing herself once more, Mrs. Mallard was literally left heartbroken and embraced the freedom that death offers us all.
As the title suggests “The Story of an Hour” is contrived within one hour and the use of time symbolizes the ticking away of our being and subsequently our freedom. An hour is a rather short amount of time but, as shown in the story, a lifetime’s worth of repressed emotions can be unleashed in an hour’s time. Mrs. Mallard goes through a personal metamorphosis during this hour as she processes everything that has unfolded before her. In conjunction with her desire to be free, Mrs. Mallard also celebrates how her remaining time is her own.
Recognizing that she no longer is marginalized by her husband, life now belongs to her. “Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own” (116). Every day is now her own masterpiece, no longer will she be subjected to the feminine role society has decided for her. Perhaps Mrs. Mallard may not have been counting the minutes for her the news of her husband’s death, but when the opportunity presents itself her deeply buried desire to be free rises up to the surface and shows how potent it truly is.
Ironically, Mrs. Mallard only had enough time to briefly savor the taste of freedom, before being dragged down into the belly of death. Widely viewed as an early feminist writer, Kate Chopin addresses the social inequality of the late 1800’s through the marriage of Mrs. Mallard and how freedom is essential to our being. Mrs. Mallard’s ailment of a weak heart provides symbolic evidence to conclude that she carries the burden of unequal strengths in her marriage.
Her heart is weakened by a one-sided relationship and in conjunction with the oppressive nature of marriage creates a life in which she is held prisoner to the will of her husband. After the death of her husband, the once closed window to self possession and fulfillment is unlocked without a trace of regret. No longer oppressed, the mind and body see “there were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds” (115) and the innate desire to run free and escape is unleashed. No longer oppressed, the desire to be free from social injustice and inequality possesses Mrs.
Mallard, letting her exuberance run wild. In the midst of triumph we often lose our sense of time and how fragile life is. Death lingers around everyone and is the inevitable end, but perhaps it is the absolute freedom. In death we lose everything, but ironically, we gain an unclaimed freedom. Mrs. Mallard’s inevitable death is not caused by her own weak heart, but her husband’s oppressive role which forced her into the clutches of eternal freedom. Her need for freedom transcended her physical need for life and in death her desire for freedom is satiated.