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Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”: Feminine Roles in the 19th Century Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 20th, 2021

Many 19th-century female writers as well as women in general struggled against social customs, traditions, and prejudices pertaining to gender roles. Kate Chopin was one of these: she contributed to the exploration of “the women question” by creating works that were highly criticized by most of her contemporaries. The inward experiences of the characters in her literary pieces were always related to the matter of women’s freedom from social pressures and male authority. Mrs. Mallard in “The Story of an Hour” was no exception: for the woman, the news about the death of her husband, although it caused the character sadness at first, brought new hope for happiness, independence, and liberty.

Thus, in the course of analyzing the powerful imagery in Chopin’s work, the paper will also focus on the concepts of feminine roles and gender relations as they were perceived in the dominant culture of the Victorian Era. By critically evaluating scholarly evidence for changes that occurred in 19th-century society and employing examples from “The Story of an Hour,” it will be shown how this remarkable literary piece reflected the values of an emerging and actively developing feminist movement.

Mrs. Mallard was the wife of Brently Mallard who, according to information received by a local newspaper office, had died, one of many victims in a railroad accident. Upon learning about the catastrophe, “the storm of grief” took hold of the female character as befitted any good woman or spouse in this case (Chopin 1).

Nevertheless, as the character sat to reflect about the situation alone, she realized fearfully, at first, and then joyfully that she was finally free: “she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely” (Chopin 1). This realization represents the main conflict in the story and places Mrs. Mallard in opposition to the traditional, imposed feminine role of a submissive and obedient wife.

The 19th-century society was characterized by a common public view that held men to be superior and saw women as inferior beings. This supposed qualitative difference in genders dictated which masculine and feminine behaviors were considered acceptable. As stated by Sindradóttir, who investigated perspectives on gender roles during the Victorian Period, the division between the sexes was “invented to help women understand that their place in society was to occupy the domestic sphere, while men could participate in the public sphere” (1).

People considered that it was in a woman’s nature to play the role of nurturer and care for her family and that she lacked the necessary qualities, such as passion and ambition, to be a professional and an innovator in any other field (Sindradóttir 1). Therefore, every woman was expected to get married and give birth to children because these functions and activities were believed to fulfill the major and sole purpose of her life. When, for any reason, a female did not become a wife and a mother at a relatively young age, her society could deem that there was something wrong and unsound about her.

The traditional view on femininity suggested that even hope for independence resurgent. Still, Mrs. Mallard rejoiced when thinking that “she would live for herself” (Chopin 2). Her reaction shows that the character married her husband merely to conform to social norms. It also seems that the character was not aware that she had been forced into the marriage by her social environment before Mr. Mallard’s “death.” She accepted her position, taking it for granted without ever questioning it much.

Of course, she noted that she loved her husband sometimes (Chopin 2) but, since there were no other acceptable forms of gender relations in the 19th century, becoming his wife had been nothing but an obligation. Thus, the husband’s “death” was presented to her as the first opportunity to even think about true freedom and individual expression. The story excerpt describing Mrs. Mallard’s anticipation of the future illustrates this statement best:

“There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination” (Chopin 2).

The first sentence in the quotation means that family relationships and wife-husband relationships, in particular, were determined primarily by the way power between family members was distributed, and males usually had greater authority. Additionally, the second sentence indicates that such interactions based on domination usually stood in opposition to the self-realization and personal growth of a spouse. It is possible to presume that though these brief statements, Chopin both criticized the marriage as an attribute of patriarchy and declared individuality as a paramount value. To verify this observation, it is appropriate to start with an investigation of the historical background and the role of the phenomenon of marriage in the writer’s society.

The main reason why men had greater power over women was the economic dependence of the latter. Nelson’s study exploring the changes in public attitudes to marriage, as well as their reflections in British literature of the 19th century, attests to the fact that most “women lacked skills for most employment, and the available but limited employment options” (4). Their society directed them toward marriage by not providing sufficient chances to obtain high-quality education and depicting marital life as a career choice. However, such domestic work was never paid, and with limited or no control over finances, females could not own or dispose of any property.

Thus, opportunities for maintaining a good standard of living when they chose to be independent were reduced. Notably, it was mainly the rise in female wage labor throughout the 20th century that led to alterations in the public attitude to marriage and “undermined the authority of husbands and fathers” (Ruggles 1797). The information provided by Ruggles and Nelson shows why it was difficult for females to be free even if they really wanted self-determination.

It is possible to say that the climax point in “The Story of an Hour” was meant to show readers that 19th-century women’s desire and need for independence were extremely intense and that their dissatisfaction with their position grew stronger. When it suddenly turned out that Brently Mallard had not died, Mrs. Mallard died immediately upon seeing him enter through the front door. While doctors presumed that it happened due to “joy that kills,” the woman’s interior experience and self-reflection described previously in the story suggest otherwise (Chopin 3). It was not joy that killed her but a profound sorrow induced by an understanding that nothing would change in the character’s life and that she would remain subject to the will of her husband.

This happened because the realization of the potential for a bright, independent future took place in a very short time, but it was impactful and made Mrs. Mallard truly happy at all levels. Chopin wrote that the woman’s “pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body,” and she felt “a monstrous joy” (2). Overall, her transformation from a docile wife into a free individual was almost instant and deep, whereas Mr. Mallard’s homecoming heralded the defeat of all new hopes.

The return of the character’s husband, sound and alive, can be seen as a symbol of the persistence of the patriarchal culture and traditional perspectives on gender. At the same time, Mrs. Mallard’s sudden death is a perfect image of feminist values and the struggles of women who prefer and are willing to give their lives for defending their rights and changing the status quo.

Feminism, as such, implies the pursuit of social and gender equality through the rejection of the concept of dual gender spheres. To analyze the feminist message of “The Story of an Hour” in greater detail, it is appropriate to refer to a critical evaluation of a feminist character in another of Chopin’s prominent works, “The Awakening,” as carried out by Nur. In his study, Nur focuses on Edna Pontellier, a character who frequently engaged in conventionally male activities, liked being alone, yet struggled to follow her dreams and realize her skills and talents because she had to fulfill the needs of her family and, due to social pressures, to be a good wife and mother.

Similar to Mrs. Mallard, Edna’s experience, which started from the gaining of self-awareness and the realization of her true desires, ended on a grim note as she committed suicide. Therefore, Nur states that, for Chopin’s female characters, in general, and Edna, in particular, life with a full awareness of self, including personal interests and aspirations, is always an ultimate value and is incomparable to life in accordance with “social limitation, social rules, and social expectations towards her (from her husband and her social community)” (14). The characters’ deaths make the conflict in gender relationships more pronounced and reveal that the feminine role of a domestic prisoner was no longer perceived as acceptable by 19th-century women.

The analysis of “The Story of an Hour” and the criticism of traditional feminine roles in the case of Mrs. Mallard shows that Chopin was a progressive novelist of her time. Compared to more conservative writers who depicted women in accordance with the social norms of the Victorian Era and encouraged readers to tolerate them, she openly questioned and denied the significance of the patriarchy and such an attribute of conventional gender relations as marriage.

The death of the character in her story indicates that Chopin, as well as many of her feminist contemporaries, valued the personal freedom of a woman much more than a comfortable life lived in dependence on others and motivated female readers to strive for the former. It is possible to say that this perspective reflected the opinion of a large portion of the female population at the end of the 19th century.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. , n.d. Web.

Nelson, Heather Lea. The Law and the Lady: Consent and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century British Literature, 2015. Web.

Nur, Dedi Rahman. “An Analysis of the Feminist Characters in Kate Chopin’s ‘the Awakening.’” Journal of English Educators Society, vol. 2, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1-20.

Ruggles, Steven. “Patriarchy, Power, and Pay: The Transformation of American Families, 1800-2015.” Demography, vol. 52, no. 6, 2015, pp. 1797-1823.

Sindradóttir, Tinna Sif. , 2015. Web.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Chopin's "The Story of an Hour": Feminine Roles in the 19th Century'. 20 July.

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