liberation of a feminist icon
Liberation of a Feminist Icon
The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin examines feminine selfhood in the patriarchal society. The source of the story’s indictment of the despotic culture is the liberal feminist theory, with a strong focus on personal autonomy. This essay reviews the extent to which women are perceived as the “other,” who lacks a voice of identity, but only exist merely as a subordinate figure to the man. It further reviews the power relations, showing the patriarchal entrapment of role constraints between women and men. The story also reacts to the historic constrain of denying the woman her true sovereign desires. It describes the brief liberation of Mrs. Mallard, who becomes aware of her feminine self after she is falsely informed of her husband’s tragic death in a railroad accident, setting her on a path to personal independence since there is no husband to impose his will on her. However, this profound journey is cut short when her husband unexpectedly returns home, leading to her ironic and sudden death. Chopin’s story is significant in analyzing the possibility of feminine self-assertion and challenges in the manner in which gender constraints and roles in a patriarchal society erase the feminine identity.
The story illustrates symbolically the patriarchal society that erases women’s identity and feminine selfhood. The protagonist is introduced to the reader from the point of view of her husband, as a subordinate self. In the majority of the plot, she is referred to as Mrs. Mallard, which is a name about her husband, Mr. Mallard. Even though she is the focus of the entire story, she seemingly does not exist in her personal name. The reader knows of her name only when her sister, Josephine, reveals the protagonist’s name, which turns out to be Louise. The namelessness and anonymity for most of Mrs. Mallard’s account in the story symbolizes the marginalization and loss of individuality of women that a patriarchal society epitomizes. Further, the story presents Mrs. Mallard as a woman afflicted with a heart condition that makes Josephine and Mr. Ballad’s friend, Richards, to inform her of the sad predicament of her husband’s death in a gentle way (Chopin 644). This account demonstrates symbolically the way the patriarchal society regards women, as weak individuals to be handled delicately, essentially likening them to children. Lastly, the story’s setting in Mrs. Mallard’s house only serves to amplify the homeliness and domestic nature of women ascribed by patriarchy (Welter 372).
Mrs. Mallard’s psychological journey towards self-assertion is characteristic of the liberal feminist theory. Liberal feminism supports the freedom of women to live their lives according to the choices and interests that befit them, without patriarchal censorship. In Chopin’s story, the theory provides a platform that challenges Mrs. Mallard’s depiction as the “other,” whose identity can only be derived from her husband and her behavioral characteristics confined by patriarchy. For instance, Mrs. Mallard portrays her husband as tender and kind, though she is relieved and finds happiness from the news of his death. This behavior is uncharacteristic of a typical woman in the patriarchal era who would mourn the death of the sole breadwinner in the family. Further, it is until the demise of her husband that the reader knows her personal name, Louise, signifying her freedom and beginning of the journey towards autonomy and self-assertion. Mrs. Mallard’s solace finds root in her independence from marriage, with no husband to impose his will on her. This plot demonstrates that the wife is often repressed even in a supportive marriage. Symbolically, this independent transformation is demonstrated when she goes upstairs and locks herself in her room after the report of her husband’s death, and conjures up feminist thoughts of her newly found liberation. The setting in her room is illustrated with an open window as she looks outside and admires the fresh vegetation, signifying her new beginning and elevated consciousness. The narrator describes vividly Louise’ thoughts, which are filled with feelings of anticipation for her spiritual self. As a result, she acknowledges the strong feelings as enlightenment to her newfound independence (Chopin 645). Similarly, her heart condition is not a presentation of her weak self, but a symbol of the adulterated feminine role in a society that fails to recognize her real agony, which is a lack of affection and appreciation as a significant partner in her marriage.
It should be apparent that the story highlights the extent of power relations between men and women in roles and professions. Men are often given superior roles such as therapists and providers of the family while women are defined as the “other” and lesser beings. This is illustrated when a male therapist diagnoses Mrs. Mallard with a heart condition that requires ardent attention. This depiction shows the subordination nature of the power relationship between the two genders. It seeks to show the power men possess over women (Chopin 646). Besides being providers for the family, the men are in a position that gives them the authority to name what is health and sickness, and alive or dead. This reasoning is justified by the therapist pronouncement of Mrs. Ballard’s death. Ironically, the therapist diagnoses Mrs. Mallard condition but is unable to cure it despite his medical qualification. The incapability of the therapist to cure symbolizes the nature of patriarchy, where the man’s subjective mentality is the cause of disagreement and hindrance to women’s sovereignty. Additionally, the therapist’s determination of Mrs. Mallad’s cause of death as over excitement trivializes and objectifies the woman, reducing and defining them as things, rather than equally fit human beings. By contrast, the joy that Mrs. Mallard experienced was the beauty of breaking from the bondage of patriarchy and her death was symbolically used to demonstrate her inability to live within such a society after her brief liberation.
Even though the story does not bring to fruition the female liberation experience, it provides a springboard to open the discussion about female identity. The depiction of Louise as a feminist pioneer who is searching for freedom and selfhood after a spiritual awakening is characteristic of the depression and repression women experience in a patriarchal society. Being in a good marriage does not fulfill her deep-seated desire to break from the bondage of patriarchy, which confines a woman’s role to domesticity and denies her an identity. The institutionalization of marriage is challenged because of its oppression of the woman by denying her the feminine desires of affection and the lack of being viewed as a significant partner. The story highlights the well-prompted objectification and conceptualization of women. The extent to which women are viewed as the “other” and lacking individuality can be challenged by the liberal feminist theory. This theory emphasizes the woman’s freedom and right to choose the way to live her life and pursue her interest without being reprimanded by the subjective gender boundaries. The tragic death of Louise at the end of the story gives hope of possible feminine freedom and selfhood in the new future to come.
Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter, et al. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Lexington: Heath, 1994. 644-46. Print.
Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” The American Family in the Social Historical Perspective. Ed. Michael Gordon. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. 372-92. Print.