Feminism in Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of An Hour’ – A New Critical Reading

July 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

As a famous feminist writer, Kate Chopin’s writings have been thoroughly studied by scholars for long; however an in-depth analysis of how her text brings the concept of feminism in different perspectives is still rare in the study of feminist literary criticism. In this paper, I would like to argue that how one of her works, The Story of an Hour, reflects its feminist nature by analyzing the interrelation between the text; the background of the story and author; and the expected readers responses.   When deciding whether a text centralizes on feminism or not, feminist Literary Critics Lisa Tuttle (184) has defined the goals of a feminist text and its criticism as follows: 1. To develop and uncover a female tradition of writing, 2. To interpret symbolism of women’s writing so that it will not be lost or ignored by the male point of view, 3. To rediscover old texts, 4. To analyze women writers and their writings from a female perspective, 5. To resist sexism in literature, and 6. To increase awareness of the sexual politics of language and style. In analyzing this text as a feminist literary work, we will have in depth analysis of it through different perspectives aforementioned. Before we go into an in-depth analysis, the background of the text chosen for this paper, The Story of an Hour, will first be introduced. It is regarded as the best-known short fiction of famous American writer Kate Chopin (1851-1904) (Bender 459). As a forerunner of American feminist authors of the late 19th century, she had written a lot of works which have gained worldwide reputation. The story illustrates the author beliefs in regard to women’s roles in marriage and feminine identity during the period of time (Bender 364) by describing a woman’s emotional change to the news that her husband died of an accident; and the events that follows

We will begin by discussing the centralizing of female characters in the text, which is often regarded as a tradition of feminist writing. This idea is best explained by analyzing the text itself. A contrast in number and choices of words in describing Mrs. Mallard emotions as she oscillated between numbness and extreme joy is found. First, in the initial stage, she was shocked when she heard about the death of her husband. Kate illustrated this event by only using a narrative sentence in simply prose[1]; but regarding the surprising ongoing scenes which described her happiness about her husband’s death, Kate used a number of vibrant and powerful words[2]; some was even said by Mrs. Mallard herself. A big contrast in balance and choice of wordings is observed here telling us that Kate would like to emphasize on Mrs. Mallard’s feeling after her acknowledgement of her husband’s ‘death’; rather than focusing on telling us more about the old story between her and her husband.   Second, it could be judged from the setting of scenes in the text. The underlying psyche of Mrs. Mallard is regarded as never disclosed to the outside world. This is explained and illustrated by the place where she expressed her emotions. They are found only happened in the room but not outside the room, further telling us that Mrs. Mallard could only cloister herself in her room[3] to discover her real important feelings without obstruction by the others. The windows outside of her room are also described as alive and vibrant like her mind, while everything about her physically is cloistered. It suggests us that the death of her husband is the only moment when the discovery of her real feeling, referring to one’s psyche but not physical, is initiated. Both the windows and rooms play a role as archetypes further suggesting the message of feminine freedom; and exploration of females’ real thinking.[4] Expression using this method is a typical approach in feminist writings as direct expressions during the period were not encouraged. (Foy 222-224)  Third, besides use of certain words indicating her inner-world of detail and life, ironic or playful uses of some words and phrases are occasionally observed which further suggests the constraining nature of their marriage. An example is Kate’s illustration of the relationship between her and her husband. Unlike expressions used in describing her emotions[5], a simple and direct language is used here to describe situations (that Mrs. Mallard is not emotional about)[6], which further suggested that she did not have any strong feelings towards her husband. If her husband’s death did matter, Kate would not choose only to use just a sentence to describe her feelings. The choice of words have reflected the relationship in between men and women which is a significant element in a feminist text.  

Other than apparent acknowledgement and telling, Kate also tried to emphasize inequality of women by making use of some invisible clues, which serve as symbolic effects. The text was initially titled as ‘The Dream of an Hour’. But in a revision published later, the text was re-titled as ‘The Story of an Hour’. Suggested by Edmund (6), the change of the word ‘dream’ to ‘story’ further suggested the validity of the text.[7] It also told us that what had been illustrated in this story is not an isolated case; but rather it is commonly observed.[8]   The protagonist’s first name, Louise, also gave an extra clue. The delayed revealing of her given name suggested that Mrs. Mallard is indeed lack of self-individuality and identity until her husband’s ‘death’ which allowed her real psyche to appear. Before that, Kate named her Mrs. Mallard, a name which indicates obvious relation and subordination with her husband. Her real name Louise is only first described when she first regained herself in the room[9]. But sadly still, the name is indeed the feminine form of the masculine Louis. So even when Mrs. Mallard took back her identity, it is still in part a male identity in which she could never get off. The surname Mallard also suggested that the identity and social status of Mrs. Mallard are not concerned as Mallard is a synonym for wild ducks, an animal which has long been regarded as dirty and cheap. The significance of this argument is highly regarded as the first sentence of the text already has the name mentioned. Mr. Mallard, however, was not even mentioned in the text.[10]  

Judging from the aforementioned texts, the nature of it as a feminist text is clearly revealed in regard to its context and language. But what was the underlying reason of Kate writing this story? And if the text is proved to be a feminist text, what is the significance of the publishing of the text during her days? Before giving an answer, we shall first have a brief understanding of Kate’s life and the history during the time when the text was written. Throughout Kate’s life, she experienced different and difficult lifestyles, including the early death of her father and husband. Without the support of her families and being a woman alone, she was isolated much by the community. This is not an isolated case as indeed; women in the late nineteenth century in America were treated as slaves. They were expected to do everything and they worked for their men. Marriage could never be decided by women; but rather men are the ones who selected and families were deciding marriages for their daughters. Women were living under inequalities. Rights of females were neglected much by the general public and this text has reflected the said social phenomenon. (William 258)   For example, in the text, there suggested the personality of Mr. Mallard, no doubt a typical husband of his day who dominated his wife. Bad relationship is observed in between Mr. and Mrs. Mallard; further reflecting the real world. Another clue which suggested this could be the opening sentence of the story which foreshadowing the ending[11]. Mrs. Mallard was found to suffer from heart-disease; and it could be seen as highly related to her marriage. This suggested that she had suffered much constant stress that might have caused her heart trouble; and has no doubt made the entire story logical enough for her death at the end. Literary Critic Seyersted (107) even suggested that Mrs. Mallard indeed reflected the life of Kate Chopin to a certain extent. The significance of the text in reflecting history and promotion of feminism is clearly supported by the aforementioned examples.        

In relating the said phenomenon and principles, the significance of the text to promote feminism could be further proved through another aspect. And when we take an in-depth consideration between the text itself and the real-life scenario, what interests us will be the existence of a conflict between the scenario in the story and real life. As quite a compelling aspect, Mrs. Mallard felt excitement after learning that her husband has been killed in an accident, quite an unaccepted feeling during the period of time. Together with the inevitable but ironic death at the last scene, these would further emphasize the situation of Mrs. Mallard, and in another sense shorten the psychical distance in between the reader and the text. Readers were encouraged to empathize with Mrs. Mallard for such an emotion. Readers found themselves guilty of expressing their empathy; but the guilt indeed was one that readers would like to commit in collective unconscious. (Le-Marquand, 161-193) Everything, however, could be expressed through words only at that time, and still, Kate had to make it indirect to avoid criticism.   The concept of narrowing psychical distance was not only illustrated by the previous example. Kate Chopin has obviously examined the roles of the readers in the text while drafting. The text indeed does not allow the reader to have other opinions or indifferent about its events. They are forced to ignore the outside world[12] as the descriptions have offered nothing remarkable. Solely focusing on her inner-life, the text forces the reader having a reaction of one extreme or another. Readers are given only two choices, either feeling extreme recrimination for Mrs. Mallard[13]; or profound empathy for her. [14] The reader of this story must become engaged and must take a moral stance, which somehow creates and shocks the readers’ making this piece of story memorable in readers’ mind. Far more than that, with the said features it will become a topic of discussion thus creating an echo effect; further achieving the ultimate goal of a feminist text. And what Kate would like to achieve has been achieved – History has proven this text as a successful one in regard to the promotional effect of feminism. (Toth 243)  

This book has become an important member in the development and progression of feminism. The interconnection of the said three arguments shall be able to play the most important role of a feminist test, ‘A feminist text is to promote feminism’ (Bender 473); as illustrated by the following graph.  But sadly still, the concept is seen being ignored in this day and age as people are too selfish to concern it. Feminism is still not a hot topic while scenes in the story are seen being repeated each and every day. Though Mrs. Mallard has scarified herself, is the death worth her life if she knows that females are still being treated unequally today; and ‘The Story of an Hour’ is still repeating in many hours, continuously?   And this, will remain a good question.  

 

[1] Extract 1 illustrates this example. [2] Extract 2 illustrates this example. [3] In an archetypal literary criticism approach, the room represents heart; or the underlying psyche of a person.; and windows represent freedom. [4] Extract 3 illustrates this example. [5] Extract 4 illustrates this example. [6] Extract 5 illustrates this idea. [7] The change of the term from ‘dream’ to ‘story’ suggests that the text is telling a real story rather than an imaginative dream. [8] The word ‘hour’ suggests this idea. Kate probably would like to bring out the meaning that this is just a story ‘of an hour’, a relatively short period of time which keeps repeating. [9] Extract 6 illustrates this idea. [10] Extract 7 illustrates this idea. [11] Extract 7 illustrates this idea. [12] Though the context is highly related to the world during the time when it was written. [13] Probably for men during the period of time [14] Probably for women during the period of time

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