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Social standing of females was a favourite subject to the writers at the start of 20th century. Society was dominated by patriarchy, male chauvinism and supremacy whereas women were perceived as fragile and dependant. This paper will analyze the gender strategy in Kate Chopin’s most anthologized short story “The Story of an Hour”.
Chopin takes in hand the themes of female emancipation, feminine identity, individualism and personal autonomy in the story through skillful characterization of Mrs. Millard. As Chopin is the narrator in the story so unlike other feminist writers who were primarily concerned about the social elevation of women, she narrates her character in way that reflects a craving for an understanding of individual sovereignty by penetrating into the conventional needs and wants in the male domain of social life.
Mrs. Millard character manifests that Chopin’s want to narrate a strong desire on the part of Mrs. Millard to get physical as well mental and spiritual liberation. Mrs. Millard’s approach is not restricted to physical liberation but she broadened it to intellectual as well socio-political autonomy. Chopin illustrates that how Mrs Millard’s psychological and intellectual emancipation is the primary requisite that would bring forward the social and physical freedom.
The Story of An Hour takes into account one hour in the life of a young woman. It describes her, Mrs. Louise Mallard, reaction to the news of her husband’s sudden and sad demise and then to a subsequent news his being alive by her sister. Both news produced different reactions and Chopin has captured these reactions skilfully.
She begins with portraying the socio-psychological afflictions of her protagonist, Louise. She describes her as “afflicted with a heart trouble” (Chopin 1970, 170), symbolizing the feebleness and fragility attributed to females at the turn of the last century. But as the story progresses, her characterization turns from feebleness to potent one. For example, when her sister discloses death of her husband in “…veiled hints that revealed in half concealing” (Chopin, 170), she shows strength. Her relief at the news further manifest the fulfilment of her longing for emancipation, both physical and psychological.
Contemporary society and reader do not presuppose this outcome i.e. a woman being capable of dealing with such ruthless realities of life, due to their pre-conceived notions. But Louise thinks that “There would be no powerful will bending her in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature” (Chopin 1970, 172). Society is too myopic that it only takes a stereotypical view of the situation. To remove or minimize the stereotypical effect, Chopin instigates an elementary change in her disposition as society fixes firmly to its typecasts, disinclined to admit change easily.
Kate Chopin has taken into account female positioning and role in social realm, masculine influence in feministic domain, matrimonial affairs and social norms and fixations Mrs Millard could not experience the life she dreamt of due to their position in the social order of a patriarchal society. Her life is patterned by the social traditions and norms of the contemporary society in which she is portrayed to live at the end of 19th century. Her tryst with life is further shaped by the man with whom she was bound to live i.e. her husband. Her response to this situation is not in conformity with socio norms and she does not show standard adherence to the actions that these socio-cultural forces necessitates.
In addition to characterization, Chopin has used subtle symbolism to augment her theme of female emancipation. There is lull after the storm that heralds the arrivals of spring. Seasonal connotations symbolize spring in Mrs. Millard life. Chopin illustrates that “[s]he could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air.”(Chopin) Spring is a season of rejuvenation. Same is the case with Mrs Millard life.
It is the rebirth of her life and she hopes to live a life of endless possibilities afterwards. Rain is another sign of rebirth. Her old pathos and miseries has been washed and rain will now allow her social, mental growth. This symbolism conveys a comprehensive sense of both physical and psychological emancipation.
Chopin first creates parallels between the outer world and Mrs. Millard’s mental world and then skilfully merges the outer physical world with the psychological being of Mrs. Millard. There is time of spring in the outer world and same is happening within Mrs. Millard’s psychological being. Chopin develops the theme of emancipation and its effects on Mrs. Millard fully. Chopin further reveals her new sketch when she moves back from her room.
Chopin portrays that “She was young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength. But now there was a dull stare in her eyes, whose gaze was fixed away off yonder on one of those patches of blue sky. It was not a glance of reflection, but rather indicated a suspension of intelligent thought.” (Chopin) Unlike a sentimental woman of contemporary era and same socio-economic background, she looked composed and stronger. Death of her husband has opposite effect on her. It relieved her from her physical and mental captivity and she started considering of her new life. This sense of independent makes her think about her future rather than thinking about her past.
All this reflects her longing liberation. It is more a psychological emancipation as her identity was repressed in the presence of Brently and she had no individuality and recognition of her own. But we see that with the development of the story, this heart trouble does not reflect elsewhere except in the end where she dies. Louise response to seeing her husband again is shocking. Her dreams of a better and independent future life shatter and she is unable to compose herself again. Being “afflicted with a troubled heart”, she could not survive. Jennifer Hick says in this regard;
Mrs. Millard, the young “repressed” woman who began to look at her widowhood as her rebirth, similar to the “new spring” outside her window, did not die from  excitement. She expired from “a heart problem”-as instantaneous knowledge that her momentary glimpse into a “life shoe would live for herself,” a “life that might be long,” was not to be” (268)
So her idea of living a life of emancipation and individual identity gets vanished with her.
Above-mentioned arguments and supporting textual and extra-textual evidence clearly manifest that Chopin has successfully blended the theme female emancipation and a desire for individual identity with main plot of the story that shows the feministic dilemma of her contemporary society. Kate Chopin manifests all these themes by means of imagery and characterization. She had enough literary skills and intellectual strength to express these ideas in her writings at a time when writing about these issues was considered a taboo.
Chopin, Kate. The awakening and other stories. New York, Holt, Rinehart and
Hicks, Jennifer. An Overview of ‘The Story of An Hour’. Short Story for Students. Vol 2. Ed.
Kathlkeen Wilson. Detroit: Gale, 1997. 268-271.