Discussion of Mark Cunningham's Essay - The Autonomous Female Self and the Death of Louise Mallard in Kate Chopin's Story of an Hour

Independence That Kills – A Response to Kate Chopin’s “A Story of an Hour”

In Mark Cunningham’s critical essay, “The Autonomous Female Self and the Death of Louise Mallard”, author Kate Chopin argues that even after the death of her husband Brently Mallard, Louise cannot survive alone in a patriarchal society. Cunningham emphasized that “the story portrays the position of women in late nineteenth-century American society as so bleak that the attempt to break from the life-denying limitations of patriarchal society is itself self-destructive” (49). Although this supports his idea that Louise would only obtain the position of the will-constricted widow, Cunningham fails to evaluate Mrs. Mallard’s desires to live an autonomous and independent life. This is very clearly illustrated after her knowledge of her husband’s death early on in the short story. It is not until after this event that Louise is referred to by her first name, and not by her husband’s surname. After Brently’s death, the reader is only then able to hear Louise’s first hand thoughts and feelings about her relationship with her husband, inviting the reader to experience the difference between having her life narrated or controlled by another person. I will argue in this paper that Louise suffers heart failure “of joy that kills” (Norton, 608) from the overwhelming emotions she experiences from the new life of freedom and happiness that she is about to embark on. By using a comparison of Louise’s life with and without her husband, Chopin gives a glimpse of the discontent and confining nature of their marriage. Louise’s feeling of entrapment in her marriage, and excitement at the idea of breaking free of this, is evident to the reader when the point-of-view changes from third person to first person. The reader then has access to Louise’s thoughts and feelings, gaining insight into her surprising lack of remorse about her husband’s death and learning about her newfound feelings of liberty.

Firstly, Kate Chopin contrasts Louise’s married life with Brently, to her prospective new life as an independent woman. Chopin portrays a negative image of their marriage, as Louise’s character expresses her feelings of dismay at the idea of being trapped in the patriarchal relationship. It is evident from early on in the short story that Louise does not feel satisfied or empowered by her marriage, but feels discouraged and trapped by it. For example, Louise “breathed a quick prayer that life might be long”, implying that she will lead a worthwhile and fulfilling existence after all. Upon entering her bedroom after learning of her husband’s death, Louise contemplates the present events and “she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely” (608). The depiction of Louise’s life preceding and following Mr. Mallard’s supposed death are clearly identifiable and provide a context to understand why her sudden independence would invoke an emotional response strong enough to cause her heart to fail. The reader is aware of Mrs. Mallard’s heart problem from the start of the story, leaving the cause of her eventual death up to the reader to decide. I would argue that Chopin’s last sentence regarding Louise’s cause of death: “they said she had died of heart disease – of joy that kills” (608) implies that the ‘joy’ she felt was from now being “free, free, free!” (607). The contrast between Louise Mallard’s behaviour from wed to widowed reveals her true feelings towards her relationship, and this extreme joy causes her death.

When she receives news of her husband’s death, it appears that Louise chooses to be alone in her room to mourn her loss. However this is not the case at all, as undeniable amounts of optimistic imagery are described by the author. Louise enters the room and “there stood, facing the window, a comfortable, roomy armchair … Into which she sank” (607). There is no apparent feeling of sorrow or discomfort being displayed by Louise, and it is evident that she is overcome by a sense of relaxation at the idea of being alone. While sitting next to the open window, Louise begins to bask in this revelation of independence, noticing “the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life” (607). These images of springtime are symbolic of the fresh beginning and new chapter of her life that Louise is experiencing. The new world beyond the open window was intriguing and comfortable to her, as she “opened and spread her arms out to [it] in welcome” (608). It is unfitting that a woman of such enthusiasm and optimism would be ‘unable to thrive in patriarchal society’ (Cunningham, 51), although Cunningham would disagree with this. It is obvious that as Louise is “drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window” (608), she is able to not only thrive without a man, but experience the pinnacle of self-actualization. At the height of this sensation, Louise’s “bosom rose and fell tumultuously” (607), portraying an image of heavy, anxious breathing beginning to overcome her. I would argue that this reaction transcends into the heart attack that kills her. It is clear that the loss of her husband left Louise feeling a sense of joy rather than distress.

Lastly, Louise expresses that “There would be no powerful will bending hers in the blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature” (608), implying that she felt as though the amount of control Bently had over her was overbearing and incriminating. Nearing the end of the story, Louise has comes to terms with her newfound freedom. She is ready to leave the confinement of her bedroom representing her relationship to her husband, and enter the world that awaits her. The imprisonment of the house that she resides in for the whole of the story, as well as the small bedroom she sits in after the news of her husband, are very much symbolic of her incarcerating relationship to her husband. Louise begins to descend the stairs, with a “feverish triumph in her eyes” as she “carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory” (608), displaying her elusion from the bedroom into her weightless, new existence. Her excitement builds as she transitions from imagining her life as an independent woman, into her transcending the stairs to begin living it. Her autonomy is her victory, and the more she breathes in the “delicious breath of rain [that] was in the air” (607), the more she becomes overwhelmed by it. Louise glides down the stairs, her emotions run high and her weak heart cannot handle the glory. At this time, she suffers a heart attack momentarily before noticing her husband’s arrival. The “joy that kills” (608), is clear to be caused by the anticipation of stepping into the world as a self-governing female.

Louise Mallard has become a widow, but is in no way feeling remorse about her husband’s death. Chopin compares and contrasts her relationship with Brently with her new way of life as a liberated woman, and the privileged existence is undoubtedly that of an independent. Repetitive imagery of optimism and renewal throughout the short story validates my argument that Louise is overcome by the idea of a sovereign life. After her restricted life with Mr. Mallard, she is a victorious “goddess” (608) to have come to attain this life of freedom. As the reader is informed in the first sentence of the text, Louise Mallard is “afflicted with a heart trouble” (607), one that proved to be unable to handle the “monstrous joy” (607) of her husband’s passing. The exhilaration of these events becomes too much for Louise’s weak heart to handle, as it kills her before she reaches the front door. Literary critic Mark Cunningham argues that the “joy that kills” (608) Louise is not actually joy at all, but the realization that any achievement as a widow in a patriarchal society is unattainable. The arguments that I have presented in this paper are the evidence that her death is not caused by any other elements but the feebleness of her heart, and the overwhelming, emotional timeframe in which she is able to contemplate the situation, and begin to enter her new world of autonomy. With the recurring idea of patriarchy and male governance, as a female author Kate Chopin would be much more likely to imply Louise’s death as a result of this newfound freedom as oppose to her inability to survive in a male-dominated society. Chopin’s short story, “The Story of an Hour”, portrays a classic representation of the female experience in American society during the nineteenth century that continues to be a prominent theme in many marriages today. It is only upon removal from her matriarchal position in society, is Louise Mallard permitted to sovereignty and ultimately the “joy” and happiness that defeats her weak, formerly male-conquered heart.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. "The Story of an Hour." 2010. The Norton Introduction to Literature. By Alison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. 10th ed. New York, London: W.W Norton &, 2010. 607-08. Print.

Cunningham, Mark. “The Autonomous Female Self and the Death of Louise Mallard”. English Language Notes, Sept. 2004. Print.