The Story of An Hour - Study Guide
Kate Chopin's The Story of An Hour (1894) is considered one of the finest pieces of Feminist Literature. We hope that our study guide is particularly useful for teachers and students to get the most from the story and appreciate its boldness shaking up the literary community of its time.
Here's the story: The Story of An Hour, Character Analysis & Summary, Genre & Themes, Historical Context, Quotes, Discussion Questions, Useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments
Mrs. Mallard - The story's protagonist, a woman with a heart condition who has just gotten news of her husband's death in a railroad disaster. We only learn her first name at the end of the story: Louise
Josephine - Her sister, whose arms she falls in when she is overcome by grief by the news
Brently Mallard - Her husband, whose name appeared on the list of "killed" in the train crash.
Richards - The husband's friend who was in the railroad office when the telegram arrived with Mallard's name on the list of "killed."
Plot Summary: Chopin basically summarizes the external events of the story in the first sentence:
"Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death."
It's the internal events of the story-- her range of emotions in the ensuing hour-- that constitute Chopin's real story. Mrs. Mallard was able to accept the significance of the news right away, became overcome by grief and weeping, then sat in a chair by the window, filled with a "physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul." Then she became comforted by the scene and songs outside in the new spring life, reminisced about her youth when she was strong, then her pulse rate increased and she became relaxed and warm, then happy, chanting: "Free! Body and soul free!" She envisioned years of happiness belonging just to her now.
The story ends dramatically: the front door is opened by a latchkey, Mr. Mallard enters, without even knowing about the accident, Josephine screams. Mrs. Mallard died of heart disease-- "of the joy that kills."
Genre: The Story of An Hour is considered in the genre of "modern feminist literature." Many claim that Chopin's story kicked-off the movement when it was published in 1894.
Major Theme: Women truly crave their OWN happiness, rather than belonging to their husband and adhering to social conventions that women are fulfilled and happiest in marriage.
"The Joy That Kills": Chopin's last line of the story reveals her theme of the dehabilitating effects of being surprisingly granted-- then abruptly denied-- freedom and independence; it can be detrimental to our body and soul.
Challenge Social Conventions: Rather than conform to what's expected, honor your own needs. Just because it's the way it's always been, doesn't mean it has to continue at your expense.
Situational Irony: Life's a bitch-- just when you think you're free from obligation, you go and die yourself, which kind of makes liberation a bit pointless. Chopin's story is a great example of the literary device called situational irony.
Feminist literature, both fiction and non-fiction, supports feminist goals for the equal rights of women in their economic, social, civic, and political status relative to men. Such literature dates back to the 15th century (The Tale of Joan of Arc by Christine de Pisan), Mary Wollstonecraft in the 18th century, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Perkins Gilman, and Louisa May Alcott. Kate Chopin's best known novel, The Awakening (1899) and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's A New England Nun (1891) led the emerging modern feminist literary movement into the 20th century, during which women earned the right to vote, fought for economic, social, political, educational, and reproductive rights with Gloria Steinem and the Women's Liberation Movement. The 21st century has brought a resurgence of interest in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale with a new streaming video series, and the Women's March After President Trump's Inauguration (2017) drew more than a million protesters in cities throughout the country and world.
It's helpful to know the list of grievances and demands a group of activitists (mostly women) published in The Declaration of Sentiments in 1848. Principal author and first women's conference organizer was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with high-profile support from abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Many more struggles and attempts to change public opinion followed the conference; it took 72 more years for women to secure the right to vote.
A brief History of Feminism
Explain what the following quotes mean and how they relate to the story:
“Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death."
“She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance."
“When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her."
“She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will--as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been."
"'Free, free, free!'' The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright."
"What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in the face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!"
"When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease--of the joy that kills."
1. Why does Chopin introduce the reader to her protagonist as "Mrs. Mallard" rather than by her first name?
2. Name each emotion that Chopin experiences throughout this hour, and how long each emotion may have lasted (some were quick, while others lasted longer)
3. Describe the significance of her sudden recognition of self-assertion: "Free! Body and soul free!"
4. Explain the symbolism of the blue sky, both in her reminiscence as a young girl, and now, as she looks out the window.
5. Chopin describes a broad range of emotions throughout the story. In the end, what do you think really killed Louisa?
6. Discuss this story's relevance to the Feminist Movement, its themes and underlying message. Why was Chopin's work controversial?
7. After reading the story once, re-read it, this time examine Chopin's precise word choice early in the story, her use of veiled hints, and describe her ability to "fool" her casual reader. What's the irony in her dramatic ending?
8. When people say the story takes us "on an emotional journey" what do they mean? What message does Chopin wish to convey with this controversial work?
9. Elaborate on Chopin's uses of irony:
1) Situational Irony: when she gets her freedom, she dies anyway
2) Verbal irony: What is said explicitly is much different than the text's inferences (thinking rather than saying). Reacting to news of a spouse's death with relief, nevermind "monstrous joy" is an "inappropriate" response, for sure. She keeps these thoughts in her head (whispering her chant), with the door closed.
10. Discuss the concept of repression and Chopin's assertion of her real cause of death: "the joy that kills."
11. Read Chopin's allegory about freedom from a cage, her short-short story, Emancipation: A Life Fable. Compare its theme, tone, symbols, and use of irony to this story.
Essay Prompt: Tell the same story from Josephine's point of view (remember, Louisa keeps her door shut most of the time).
Essay Prompt: Consider reading the one act play by Susan Glaspell, Trifles (1916), about a murder trial which challenges our perceptions of justice and morality. Compare it to Chopin's The Story of An Hour
Essay Prompt: Read Kate Chopin's biography (feel free to extend your research to other sources). How does her personal story reflect her writing?
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How does Chopin explore female sexuality in her stories?
Answer: Chopin often places her female protagonists in the position of having sexual desires that seem illicit because they do not follow the established moral standards of their society. A good answer will draw on this theme using several examples. For example, in "A Respectable Woman," we can read Mrs. Baroda as initially suppressing her desire to pursue an extramarital affair with Gouvernail, but ultimately deciding to satisfy her desires. In "The Kiss," Nathalie faces less of a dilemma in that she tries to obtain both respectability and romance, but she finds that she cannot obtain both simultaneously. In both cases, the women choose to ignore societal norms in favor of achieving their own goals. Note that in these cases, female sexuality is tied with the theme of what is deemed appropriate in heterosexual marriage according to the society these women inhabit.
Discuss the theme of autonomy and independence in Chopin's short stories.
Answer: The protagonists in Chopin's stories face barriers from all directions, and they tend to be imposed by societal norms, sometimes imposed by others, and sometimes internalized as inner conflicts. Again, a good answer will provide several examples. The barriers can be economic, as in "A Pair of Silk Stockings," marital, as in "The Story of an Hour," or mental, as in "Beyond the Bayou." Race, class, and gender norms all tend to limit autonomy and independence. In particular, the women of these stories struggle in various ways to resist their boundaries, and their success is mixed. In "Beyond the Bayou," the woman in question overcomes her limitations through the precipitating event of a crisis, but the heroines in stories such as "The Story of an Hour" find that reality ultimately surpasses their ability to rebel.
How does Chopin portray the Old South in her short stories?
Answer: In general, the author uses two approaches to rendering the world of antebellum Louisiana. In the first scenario, Chopin explores its memory in terms of those who lost their childhoods in the war, as in the case of Ma'ame Pélagie, for whom the Old South was the source of her youth and whose loss affected the rest of her life. In the second situation, Chopin chooses to depict this era from the viewpoint of the people who suffered from the social troubles of that world. "Désirée's Baby" is the clearest example of this theme, since the story explores the destructive implications of racial bias.
Discuss the motif of springtime in Chopin's short stories.
Answer: In Chopin's works, a springtime setting generally indicates life and rebirth, although its specific implication differs from story to story. In "The Locket," the beautiful spring day is emphasized and contrasted with the mourning and despair faced by Octavie, and it eventually serves as foreshadowing for the unexpected revelation that Edmond has survived the war. In "The Story of an Hour," the main male character also turns out to be alive, but the idea of spring is used to predicate Louise Mallard's rebirth and independence rather than the status of her husband. Ironically, when he returns, she dies, and the springtime environment becomes ironic rather than symbolic of reality.
What role does female identity play in Chopin's stories?
Answer: During the era in which Kate Chopin was writing, women often lacked the legal and societal rights that allowed them to claim an identity independent of that of their husbands or fathers. Many of the women are referred to solely by their married names, indicating that their status has somehow been defined merely by marriage. In "A Pair of Silk Stockings," for example, Mrs. Sommers was once an affluent woman but has been driven into poverty by her marriage and children. Her attempt to reclaim her old identity through the purchase of luxury items is ultimately unsuccessful in changing the status quo, but she is able for an afternoon to think of herself first rather than prioritizing her family.
How does Chopin characterize romantic love in her works?
Answer: In "The Locket," romantic love is an expression of the potential of youth and a motif through which Chopin can explore the effects of the Civil War on an entire generation. In contrast, in many cases, Chopin characterizes love as less important than other emotions and drives. In "The Story of an Hour," Louise Mallard admits that she loves her husband but feels guiltless for recognizing that his death means her freedom, and Chopin depicts her revelation in a highly sympathetic manner. In addition, in "Désirée's Baby," the lack of Armand's love drives Désirée to an implied suicide more thoroughly than her lack of status.
Given Chopin's focus on the lives of women, how does she characterize the men in her stories?
Answer: Although Armand Aubigny of "Désirée's Baby" is portrayed as a cold and unsympathetic husband, many of the men in Chopin's stories are portrayed as harmless and loving. Yet, their apparently mild and amiable personalities are treated as relatively unimportant when compared to the psychologies and shifting desires of the protagonists who are their wives. Of all the men, only Edmond of "The Locket" can be described as a true protagonist, and Gouvernail of "A Respectable Woman" is the only man who shows much understanding of the sensual needs of women (and of Mrs. Baroda in particular).
Examine Chopin's use of visual motifs in her stories.
Answer: Chopin often uses visual motifs to convey symbolically the overarching ideas of her stories. For instance, in "Beyond the Bayou," La Folle treats the line of the bayou as a physical, visual, and mental division between her limited world and the unknown area outside of which she is afraid. When she crosses the bayou, she breaks that visual line in order to show her newfound freedom. In "Désirée's Baby," the imagery of black and white underlines much of the story and is used to foreshadow the eventual revelation of Armand Aubigny's heritage.
Analyze Chopin's use of foreshadowing in her short stories.
Answer: Chopin often uses variations of this literary device to lay subtle groundwork for plot twists and revelations that occur near the end of her tales. In the case of "Désirée's Baby," Chopin hints through her comparisons of Désirée's whiteness and Armand's darkness that Armand rather than Désirée has the African ancestry. Meanwhile, the clues in "The Locket" are more subtle, as the silent, barely mentioned fourth man at the beginning of the story proves to be the one who died instead of Edmond. "Beyond the Bayou" also uses foreshadowing through the technique of setting up a parallel between the traumatizing events of La Folle's past and the event in the story that brings her back to sanity.
Identify the characteristics that Chopin appears to value in her protagonists.
Answer: Because Chopin often writes about ordinary women who are faced with various forms of inner conflict, her stories focus primarily on the mental traits and psychology of her main characters. The author generally treats even the most perverse or outwardly unconscionable thoughts of her protagonists with sympathy, as in "The Story of an Hour" or "A Respectable Woman." These women are valued not because they have unerring moral compasses but because they dare to reach beyond the dictates of society and because they are able to come to personal understanding of their desires. They tend to value freedom and autonomy and to work for self-realization. While it is difficult to infer Chopin's intent from her treatment of various characters (whose motivations sometimes lead to horror and death), we can at least say that Chopin found something worth exploring in these uncharacteristically strong female characters.