What can be more painful than the loss of a close person? When you loved him or her, held sacred and cherished greatly, the bereavement of that person ruins your world, drains your spirit, and leaves unbearable emptiness, disturbed by mixed feelings. It makes you feel lonely your solid structure of life is ruined quickly, as if a stone in your fist has been suddenly turned into sand. It’s falling down blown by the wind and an empty palm is left remaining that things will never be the same again. Never!
The luckiest are those who have never experienced death in their lives, those who have never been so helpless and devastated sitting near a dying person and trying to hide deep inside all pain and grief. Every person is valuable and unique, has a definite position in life, often an irreplaceable one, so the loss will influence the whole order of events. When you are informed about a close person’s death, at first you do not accept the information. Subconsciously the mind repels the fact as if it happened with someone else, the message is false, and someone made a terrible mistake. Death brings a drastic radical change; sometimes we are not ready for it. You are simply frustrated and confused with a new life without that person, and your attitude towards him or her will greatly influence future feelings. At first everyone feels penetrating emptiness and sharp pain; later on, comes an obedient submission to unjust fate but sometimes it happens that the death may be a relief. Mixed emotions represent the most exact state of one’s mind. It may be the mixture of despair and relief, disappointment and anger, fear and surrender all blended with emptiness.
“Story of an Hour,” is one of the Chopin’s most famous short stories and depicts a psychological ambivalence of the protagonist, Mrs. Louise Mallard, who passed away with a sudden death after realizing an unexpected change in her life. Being “afflicted with a heart trouble” (Chopin 28), this woman receives the news of a railroad disaster: […] “delivered with the greatest care to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death” (Chopin 28).
Her response to her husband’s death is mixed. At the beginning she “wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms”(Chopin 28) then separated herself from everyone in her room. Deep in reflections, she overcame the strong wave of grief, experiencing “physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul” (Chopin 28). A battle of feelings made her suffer at first and later on developed into something new for her, something she had never experienced before it “was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air” (Chopin 28).
She started to realize freedom “she said it over and over under her breath: ‘free, free, free!’” (Chopin 29). Being a young and beautiful widow, she had the opportunity to enjoy the future that belonged only to her as a master of herself. Of course, she would weep seeing her husband dead with “tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead. But she saw beyond that bitter moment, a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome” (Chopin 29).
There was no love between them: only respect and obligations. As the Victorian woman, she realized the value of self-assertion that became free for her to experience. Mrs. Mallard’s sister, Josephine, seems to be worried about her sister and warned her not to suffer much. But Louise was not going to do that, she was free. She planed to enjoy life in which
“there would be no powerful will bending hers.”(Chopin 29).
But the other news instantly killed her. She accepted the thought of a new life and the image of her husband alive opening the front door, being safe and sound – the death of her newly-born dream of being free, instantly killed her. It happened due to her weak health, caused by Victorian women’s domestic imprisonment, when “they were to be treated as saints, but saints that had no legal rights.” (Wikipedia.org). At that time, though, her demise was more likely to be explained as “joy that kills” (Chopin 29).
Mrs. Louise Mallard was justified in her emotional response upon hearing that her husband died in the railroad accident because she was made to conform to controlling Victorian edicts, and she was dominated by her husband, both of which made her feel restricted.
Some believed that Mrs. Mallard was not controlled by her husband for they believed that “yet she had loved him—sometimes.” (Chopin 29) Feelings of hesitation whether that was a kind or cruel intention that “made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination” (Chopin 29) was the evidence supporting the fact that she was controlled by both her husband and the Victorian Era. For the “thought with a shudder that life might be long” (Chopin 29) allows us to presume that she was unhappily married what was typical for that time. His strong power upon her, “a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature” (Chopin 29), her fear of Mr. Mallard, and the fact that she was left alone in the Victorian society took an overwhelming control of her mind and soul. Only the realization of freedom within her inner self could help her to get rid of that control.
The protagonist of the story is a typical representative of a Victorian woman who was often faced with many challenges, especially those dealing with her rights, households and most important – money. Victorian females seemed to be left upon the overwhelming mercy of their husbands, being nothing without a husband and having no rights or the chance for true self-expression in marriage, “the role of women was to have children and tend to the house. They could not hold jobs unless it was that as a teacher nor were they allowed to have their own checking accounts or savings accounts” (Wikipedia.org).
The only career and position for a Victorian woman was to be an obedient in everything wife of her husband, for “in law a husband and wife are one person, and the husband is that person” (Jones 402) and “the law regarded a married couple as one person. The husband was responsible for his wife and bound by law to protect her. She was supposed to obey him and he had the right to enforce this” (Wikipedia.org).
If these challenges were not met by a woman of that time especially in case of divorce – she would be simply described as an outcast of society, evil and vicious creature, for “a divorced woman had no chance of acceptance in society again” (Fashion-era. Fashion History).
First, women in the Victorian Era (often defined as the years from 1837 to 1901) had limited rights to who they could marry. The choice was made far beyond the will of an intended bride. Such aspects as money and position in the society were valued first of all due to the distinct gender boundaries that males were “competitive, assertive and materialistic” (Lady Geraldine’s Courtship). For females the appropriate attributes were “pious, pure, gentle and sacrificing” (Lady Geraldine’s Courtship).
There was no love, only duty and respect. There existed a few general rules involving marriage, one of them was “few marriages started with love”( Marriage in the Victorian Era). A young girl was something tender and weak, “helpless, a fragile delicate flower” (Fashion-era. Fashion History), something that would blossom only by the side of her master and owner, for she was “incapable of making decisions beyond selecting the menu and ensuring her many children were taught moral values” (Fashion-era. Fashion History), taking care of “that the home was a place of comfort for her husband and family” (Fashion-era. Fashion History). The accepted reasoning was that the only career for women was marriage. To get ready for it a girl was treated like a ‘racehorse’. Her personality was estimated by whether she was able to sing, play an instrument and speak a little French or Italian: […] “the qualities a young Victorian gentlewoman needed, were to be innocent, virtuous, biddable, dutiful and be ignorant of intellectual opinion” (Fashion-era. Fashion History).
Rules of the Victorian society were stressful in themselves and the initial reason of Mrs. Louise Mallard’s heart problems. Some people just can not go on being put into a cage, even if it’s a golden one. Being “young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength” (Chopin 28), she wanted to be free.
Secondly, women of this century were also considered “generals” of their households. This term was established in 1861 by Isabelle Beeton (Wikipedia.org). Mainly it considered the role of a wife and mother in the family as unnoticeable, not valued but magnificent and significant. She had to be a perfect mother, taking care of the children and an ideal wife helping her husband with his career and business and at the same time have no personal self realization as a social being: “she is expected to organize parties and dinners to bring prestige to her husband, also making it possible for him to meet new people and establish economically important relationships” (Wikipedia.org).
From her, such things were demanded as to improve her own abilities and cultural knowledge, to be a nurse for the family and take care of its sick members, always being;
[…] “with a good temper, compassion for suffering and sympathy with sufferers, neat-handedness, quiet manners, love of order and cleanliness” (Wikipedia.org).
The list of duties included taking care of his and her parents in case of illness, even if this stretched over a long period of time and often implied a great sacrifice of self-interest from her side and tremendous devotion. All male members of the family who was living with females had to be treated with special care and respect by the bride-to-be girls this way: […] “to secure [young females’] future in case their husband treated them badly or they did not get married at all” (Wikipedia.org).
And finally, women had little control over the money and dowries that they had from their family, for “upon marriage, Victorian brides relinquished all rights to property and personal wealth to their husbands” (Lady Geraldine’s Courtship).
That happened because the law of the Victorian Time regarded a married couple as one person and consequently:
The personal property the wife brought into the marriage was then owned by the husband, even in case of a divorce. The income of the wife belonged completely to her husband and the custody of children belonged to the father as well. He was able to refuse any contact between the mother and her children. The wife was not able to conclude a contract on her own. She needed her husband’s agreement. (Wikipedia.org).
These conditions made our protagonist accept obediently the fact of being a widow because she realized that there would be no control from her husband’s side.
Indeed women in the Victorian Era were often victims controlled by their husbands, who “have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature,” whom was his wife. (Chopin 29). Every one had, as Mrs. Louise Mallard, a dual personality. So, these were the so-called two “selves” of the woman “the social self – Mrs. Mallard – and the private, female self – Louise” (Gender Roles in Kate Chopin’s Short Stories). The first part of Victorian female’s identity was the social one that went with her surname taken from her husband and which allowed her to be someone as a wife of a husband and the second one – her name that represented her private female self. Without a husband’s name there was no way into the society and no way to self realization.
At that time, women were often considered the “weaker sex,” vulnerable and unable to make a serious decision and at the same time being in charge of a lot of domestic duties. Whether married or single, all Victorian women were expected to be weak and helpless. It was a common belief and even it was trendy that women needed to be sheltered. It was quite obvious due to given for a Victorian female the specific poor health condition. In this story, the main heroine indeed possessed some troubles with her heart. From a good wife was expected to be a fragile, delicate female creature capable of selecting the menu and ensuring her children the education of Christian and moral values, a duty of that tender and feeble human being was to ensure that the home would be a perfect place of comfort for her husband and children. Wives artificially treated as weak were at the same time given a lot of duties to fulfill.
It was pretty sadistic and cruel to force marriage, then weakness. In addition, think of a woman as of a disabled person. Living with a person without truly loving him was a challenge for Mrs. Mallard and an exhausting life threat, but those close to her, didn’t realize this, they delivered with great care “to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death” (Chopin, 28) trying to lessen her pain were unaware that this could be a relief for her, as well. Maybe Victorian wives’ way of thinking couldn’t even allow the slightest possibility that without a husband, being a widow, would bring happiness and so highly desired freedom into woman’s life. She was scared of that at first, being in deep sorrow and in tears, but after realizing the new life, she recovered from that mixture of fear and distress.
Everyday domestic work routine is the most difficult one. Its monotony drains all strength supplies. And it’s not so because the work is hard and demands an enormous muscles. It’s just a routine, unvalued and disrespected one, the one which is supposed to be done as an obligation and no questions asked. Women were according to Victorian law “legally incompetent and irresponsible” (Lady Geraldine’s Courtship). It’s devastating due to its dullness and monotonous sequence, every day the same. At that time females were obliged to do only domestic chores and take care of the real job was the duty of the males. They could have some interesting and payable jobs, careers and valuable positions, as far as they were supposed to be bread-winners in the family, even the easiest work of a husband was valued more then all the domestic labor of his wife. Women were not allowed to work outside the house and inside only stick to the domestic chores. Mrs. Mallard’s husband was expected to be at home from work and the fact of his absence was shocking for all, for they were afraid to be left without any means, protection and without no one to earn their future leaving. Keeping women out of the work place was viewed as a way of protecting women from harsh realities of life, for they were, as it was already mentioned, weak and vulnerable creatures, seen with pale faces peacefully waiting for their husbands, but it was also a common method of control: while husband was working, his wife was busy with the children having no personal money, no private property, nothing that could make her a social being without a husband.
Finally, women were often viewed as too emotional and very sensitive that’s why they needed to be protected by their husbands. Females have also been traditionally classified as over emotional in this time period and needed to help “rein them in.” Mrs. Mallard’s extremely emotional responses, so different from how many other her contemporaries would have reacted at similar news, only go to support the excuse for the need to control one’s life. She was securely protected from extra emotions that accompanied her husband’s death she was not allowed to cry her grief out peacefully on her own, because this way she could make herself sick. For her sister’s warnings: “Louise, open the door! I beg, open the door–you will make yourself ill. What are you doing Louise? For heaven’s sake open the door” (Chopin 29) she answered simply that she was not making herself ill but “she was drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window” (Chopin 29).
Later the vision of her husband alive was also attempted to be somehow unsuccessfully curtained from her by “Richards’ quick motion to screen him from the view of his wife” (Chopin 29). It’s clear that it was not the image of her husband that killed her, but the chock of a completely vanished chance for freedom. The story shows that Mrs. Louise Mallard was indeed too emotional. A lot of mixed feelings in a short period of time were creating a battle inside her mind. From sorrow she turned her thoughts to happiness and relief, an overwhelming joy of being free she whispered “Free! Body and soul free!” (Chopin 29). A quick change from tears to joy justified her unstableness and truly vivid problems with heart. In her unsuccessful marriage, she was chronically depressed and that led to problems connected with health.
All that picturesque scene makes the reader appreciate the beauty of life, and for Louise, it was a discovery of an amazing world of freedom, something new for her, that causes new feelings and emotions, so fresh, sharp and dangerous “spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own” (Chopin 29).
Was it joy that killed Mrs. Louise Mallard or something else? The answer will be different given the experts of her time and by our interpretations. Victorian society people would be strongly convinced that it was “heart disease– of joy that kills,” (Chopin 29) and contemporary society may say that it was a shock of loosing a dream of free and happy life, having experienced it, no matter if only in thoughts, but indeed for a short period of time.
The true sorrow was in the emotional response of Mrs. Louise Mallard, she was simply scared and afraid of the new situation, of her being alone with all the consequences and peculiarities inherent for the Victorian world, for “there was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully it was too subtle and elusive to name” (Chopin 28). Becoming slowly aware of her husband’s death she realized that still she’d been dominated by him and that makes her feel miserable and lonesome.
Though being small, the short story is significant and of a great value because it represents the cruel features of Victorian Age. Kate Chopin’s novel provides us with the opportunity to witness the fate of a woman at that time and make definite conclusions. Some of them are represented in this essay and include the thoughts about how social surrounding and social image of that time may influence greatly not only the fate but also health and what is more earth-shattering – it may cause death. In all that drama, Chopin wants to show that women can get along quite fine without having men interfere, the only thing they need is to stop living around stereotypes and suspicions, leave all eeriness away and become strong, enjoy, as Mrs. Mallard, “self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being” (Chopin 29). The main point represented in the story is a disdain for the way women were treated then. And “joy that kills” is a step towards freedom, having imagined what, no one would want to give it away, even the illusion of it (Chopin 29).
Over all, Mrs. Mallard was controlled by her husband. She simply lived for him, to fulfill his plans that somehow concerned her, as well. For her his death signified that: “there would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself” (Chopin 29)
There are two reasons why she was controlled. First of all, Mrs. Mallard had to follow the rules of the Victorian Age. She, as a lot of women of that time, got married and played roles of caring wives. In most cases marriages were just theatrical performances where love was a pretended illusion, indeed a wife may love her husband but as we can see in Mrs. Mallard’s case that “often she had not. What did it matter” (Chopin 29)?
Women having no income were totally dependent upon their husbands not because they were stupid, lazy or unable to fulfill any job but because of the peculiar demands for women of that time. The protagonist of the story is not stupid at all, on the contrary her: […] “lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength. It was not a glance of reflection, but rather indicated a suspension of intelligent thought” (Chopin 29.)
Lastly she was controlled by her husband in ways more than one. Being always accompanied with her husband’s:[…] “powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence” (Chopin 29), she wasn’t happy to live with him thinking “with a shudder that life might be long” (Chopin 29) – life together with her legitimate husband. This young woman was afraid of her husband and this fear was also a way to take control over her by Mr. Mallard.The short story represents a struggle between a settled range of rules and stereotypes of the Victorian Age, its oppressive and humiliating influence upon the female personalities, their souls and minds, and the desire to be free and valued.
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