Woman, Self and Society
Published 22 Jun 2017
Woman is usually treated and seen in a society as feeble and weak. Commonly the term is assigned with feminine nature which includes caring, softness, calmness and submissiveness. Feminine character is a gender role or the assigned task for the woman sex. In the ‘story of an hour’ by Kate Chopin, these feminine characteristics are portrayed through the expectations of the other character regarding Mrs. Mallard’s reaction upon knowing her husband’s death.
It is first and foremost obvious in the first paragraph of the story that Mrs. Mallard is viewed as someone weak. It is explicated that ‘she has a weak heart’ thus, ‘great care was taken to break the news’ regarding the death of her husband. It has been Josephine, her sister who revealed the truth to her. A ‘friend of her husband, Richards was also there’. The presence of Richards in the scene signifies his authority as a male and as a friend with respect to the truthfulness of the story. Mrs. Louise Mallard is the main character in ‘The Story of an Hour’.
The way that the author address the lead character as Mrs. Mallard connotes that in marriage, the women takes the name of her husband. This is a rule and a societal norm that also codifies the fact that woman becomes a sort of ‘property’ or at least part of her husband. Within this context there are attitudes and actions that are expected of women that are prescribed to them by the society. Since Mrs. Mallard’s reaction was to ‘wept at once’, it undermines the absence of ‘denial, questioning and the usual hysteria’ that are the typical response of people who have just found out that a love one dies. Mrs. Mallard accepted her husband’s death upon hearing the news with no contempt.
In the third paragraph, a more concrete elaboration on Mrs. Mallard’s reaction was noted. ‘She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance’, denotes that Mrs. Mallard heard the same story but found its significance different than with other women. A detailed analysis of this part implies that there is basically a certain manner by which women are supposed to act and behave when told about the death of her husband. This is the central gender role that ‘The Story of an Hour’ tried to suggest.
She withdrew to her room shortly and while sitting near the window, the author stress the presence of the ‘patches of blue sky’, which was mentioned twice. From a state of loneliness and sadness Mrs. Mallard is in the process of reflecting and seeing a new light. It is further stated that ‘she was young; with a face…whose lines bespoke repression and strength’. This denotes the fact that Mrs. Mallard has been in a ‘repressive’ state. The word ‘strength’ codifies her ability to stand the cruelty that she had previously experienced. While sitting near the window, it is not only the ‘blue patches’ that captured her senses but other vibrant things which reflects a more lively emotion that is not common for a grieving person to note.
She tried her best to ‘beat it back with her will’ but she failed and finally whispered ‘free, free, free’. It encompasses the realization of her ‘freedom’. Through the death of her husband, she started to recognize her ‘sense of self’ that is rooted from the fact of being alone. She is not anymore just Mrs. Mallard but she is Louise. The sense of self is usually brought about by the ability to express your real emotion. As the story mentioned, Louise had been repress which basically hindered her self expression. However, at the death of her husband, there is this sort of ‘monstrous joy that held her’. Nonetheless, she still considered her attitude as somehow ‘trivial’ due to the fact that the ‘joy’ or whatever feeling it is that she now realized should be again kept in shadows as she recognized the need to ‘weep again’. It seems that she also has feelings for her husband despite the ‘repression’ she mentioned before.
Nevertheless ‘she opened and spread her arms out’ to welcome the years to come in which she do not have to live for someone else but for herself alone. This part is crucial in her finding a ‘sense of self’. According to Dr. Jean Baker Miller, a woman should first be able to go beyond the ‘assigned tasks’ or the gender roles before she can create an ‘inner conception’ which will guide her. In the story, Louise thought that she already succeeded her ‘gender roles’. Upon the (perceived) death of her husband, Louise felt lively. She becomes conscious of her abilities and her possibilities. She recognizes that she is not anymore trapped by the rules of marriage which dictates certain aspects of her life. Louise becomes hopeful for a future where she sees herself taking the helm without taking into account someone else. There will be ‘all sorts of days that would be her own’. With this in mind she created possibilities and dreams for her new found self. Furthermore, Louise realized that there will be ‘no powerful will bending hers in blind persistence’. This statement illuminates the scenario wherein a relationship bounded by marriage is also under the circumstances bounded by the dictates of norms.
‘Free! Body and soul free’ affirm a self that is free from domination. Louise even wished that ‘life will be long’. She further recognize that the ‘possession of self-assertion… as the strongest impulse of her being’. This portray how strong ‘self-assertion’ is something that she has never felt before. Ordinary woman of her age would not be familiar with such emotion and ‘sense of self’ since they are manipulated by the society, particularly by fear of prejudice and further repression which might include humiliation due to nonconformity.
Nonetheless, as readers of the short story finally join with the triumph felt by Louise, Brently Mallard, her husband entered the front door. Ironically, the story ends as Mrs. Mallard ‘died of heart disease’. In a matter of an hour, as depicted by the title, Louise had succeeded in transgressing the societal norm of being a repressed woman locked in the role of a wife bounded by the rules of marriage tradition and culture. She had also broken the rules of behaving and thinking like a widower of her time. Instead of mourning for the death of her husband, she felt a sense of ‘new life’ and ‘joy’ shortly after his death. Nonetheless, after realizing that her husband is actually alive, it literally killed all of her new hope, dreams and aspirations that ultimately led to her death.
The author stressed that the doctors identified that the heart failure is due to ‘the joy that kills’. Indeed, this is the case, for if Mrs. Mallard has not found her ‘sense of self’, she wouldn’t have felt ‘joy’ and ‘freedom’. Without accepting joy and without the recognition of freedom she would not have attempted to defy her gender role– even in thought. Just as how powerful her emotions has been when she recognizes that she can live for her own, the surge of emotions that swiped her after realizing that everything will not come true must have drowned her and killed her.
Social expectations play a great role in the identity of a person. As ‘The Story of an Hour’ reflects, marriage is seen as a repressive relationship that takes away a part of the woman’s self. Due to the fact that something is being done or is accepted by the society, there is a tendency that social expectations translate into rules. At a time when women are marginalized, they are assigned with gender roles that would render them powerless against men. Such gender roles or assigned tasks mark their inability to express themselves freely or openly. Instead of developing into an autonomous rational person, women are expected to become or to belong in the societal norms controlled, dominated and favoring men.
- Chopin. The Story of an Hour. 1984.
- Miller, J.B. Towards a New Psychology of Women.