The canon of Kate Chopin's work consists of stories addressing gender hierarchy, gender relations, and sexuality. Two of Chopin's short stories that particularly exemplify a feminist critique of existing social structures include "The Story of an Hour" and "The Storm." Chopin uses her medium to express political views on the changing roles of women in domestic partnerships; the changing nature of those partnerships; and the impact of gender on personal identity. This paper will outline the two short stories in detail, discussing the core issue of gender hierarchy. Moreover, the paper will explore Kate Chopin's implicit and explicit strategies for social change as they appear in the two short stories. In both "Story of an Hour," and "The Storm," Kate Chopin promotes an ideal of independence and self-empowerment without completely eschewing heterosexual love.
In "The Story of an Hour," Louise Mallard learns the news of her husband's death. The news causes deep personal reflection on her life and her feelings toward her husband. She contemplates her life with him via a series of flashbacks, but focuses more firmly on her future and the fact that she is now free of her obligations toward Brently. Rather than to mourn his loss, Louise welcomes the sense of liberation that comes from no longer being in a position of subservience and domestic servitude. Notably, Louise Mallard muses on her newfound freedom behind closed doors and all alone. Her family imagines that she is weeping over the loss of Brently, when in fact Louise is tasting liberation for the first time in her adult life. Her solitude underscores the fact that it would not have been socially acceptable for a woman to admit that she felt free once her husband passed away.
When she learns that her husband is still alive, Mallard immediately dies of a heart attack. The event is ironic, given that Mrs. Mallard had just realized the nature of freedom before being able to actually enjoy it. She will not be able to live independently at all; she dies a married woman. Mrs. Mallard represents the death of the old generation and the rebirth of a new generation offering greater opportunities for women. The old generation represents a highly structured gender norm, where wives serve husbands. The new generation represents the ability for women and men to be equal within their partnerships.
If Louise Mallard represents the old generation and patriarchal social norms, then Calixta symbolizes the birth of new feminist ideals. In "The Storm," Calixta has an affair with an old lover, Alcee. Both Calixta and Alcee are married, placing them on equal moral footing. The tryst is also spontaneous and unpremeditated. It conveniently occurs during the titular storm, which provides symbolic cover for the lovers. When the storm is over, both Calixta and Alcee go their separate ways but the interlude changes their outlook on marriage and on themselves.
When Calixta's husband Bobinot and their son Bibi return home, she warmly embraces her family. Unlike Mrs. Mallard, Calixta is happily married. Chopin makes a point of introducing Louise Mallard as "Mrs. Mallard" to emphasize the way women are stripped of their personal identity in a traditional patriarchal marriage. The woman loses her identity literally by surrendering her name. Chopin introduces Calixta in the opposite way: by her first name only. Doing so shows that Calixta represents independent and empowered women of the next generation. Likewise, Clarisse is a feminist figure in "The Storm." She is Alcee's wife but only her first name is used. Clarisse concludes that she enjoys her independence from her husband and does not mind being alone for a while longer.
Both "The Story of an Hour" and "The Storm" are told from the point-of-view of their female protagonists. This is an inherently feminist method of storytelling: revealing the woman's view on gender hierarchies, norms, and roles. However, there is one key difference between the feminist slants in the two short stories. "The Story of an Hour" is about a mature woman; whereas "The Storm" is about a young one who has just started a family. Therefore, age and gender are featured prominently in Chopin's short stories. The author is sensitive to the changing needs of women as they age. Chopin is aware of the changing nature of domestic partnerships, and the differences between an older generation's traditionalism vs. A younger generation's progressivism. In "The Story of an Hour," the marriage between Mrs. Louise Mallard and her husband Brently is depicted as patriarchal and therefore highly traditional.
Sexuality features more prominently in "The Storm" than it does in "The Story of an Hour." The Mallard marriage is revealed to be devoid of genuine intimacy: either emotional or physical. There is no mention of any Mallard children, which also represents the lack of physical intimacy in the relationship between Louise and Brently. This is in stark contrast to "The Storm," in which sexuality is a primary theme. Calixta has a young son, symbolizing her fertility. She has a lusty affair with an old lover, which shows that she has a healthy sexual desire. Calixta is fully in control of her sexuality and relishes her body; Louise Mallard might have never felt the pleasure of her own sexuality because she had lived under patriarchal social codes for so long.
Although Chopin makes sure to emphasize the importance of female sexuality as a key to self-liberation, and collective female liberation, she also points out that women need not rely on their sexuality as the sole means of acquiring happiness or personal power. The character of Clarissa is the ideal counterpart to Calixta. Both Clarissa and Calixta are empowered on their own terms. It just so happens that Calixta is a more sexual being than Clarissa and relishes personal intimacy more. Chopin is suggesting that women embrace who they are regardless of personal sexuality; opening the door for bisexual and homosexual relationships as well.
"So the storm passed and every one was happy," is the final line of "The Storm." "The Storm" therefore reveals a perfect balance between self-love and love for others. The happy ending of "The Storm" is paradoxically similar to the happy ending of "The Story of an Hour" nearly down to the word. Louise Mallard "died of heart disease -- of the joy that kills."
Ultimately, Louise Mallard is liberated. She unfortunately must die to achieve her liberation, though. Chopin suggests that patriarchy literally kills women's spirits. Feminism liberates those spirits. Calixta and Clarissa both create their own happiness independent of their husbands. Louise Mallard could not do that during the course of her life because the opportunity for self-liberation never presented itself. Women of Mallard's generation were not encouraged to seek independent means of achieving happiness or self-fulfillment. To be married meant to subsume all personal desires to serve the husband, often called sire. Upon death, "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."
"The Storm" and "The Story of an Hour" both contribute to the reader's understanding of a gender hierarchy by illuminating the vast differences between the two generations. The author is optimistic. Chopin believes that social change is possible, and that it has already taken place. The origins of unequal power relations are rooted in patriarchy. Patriarchal social norms are what cause both men and women (and Chopin is sure to blame both) to be unhappy. When Louise Mallard muses about "that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature," she admits her own role in perpetuating patriarchy by simply submitting to it.
The consequences of unequal power relations run deeper than personal dissatisfaction. Although Chopin keeps her stories relatively light, the reader cannot help but think about the more severe consequences of gender imbalance, gender hierarchy, and gender disparity. Wife beating, self-immolation in the Indian practice of sati, and genital mutilation are all severe examples of patriarchal rule. The characters in "The Storm" and "The Story of an Hour" are exempt from these extremes and feel the pain of patriarchy from a Western European and American context.
Kate Chopin does offer concrete strategies for change from within the North American and Western European contexts. Most of these strategies are explicit in the short stories. For example, Calixta shows how women can own their sexuality as a means of self-empowerment. Chopin brilliantly casts aside the morality of adultery and focuses squarely on what the affair does for Calixta's psyche. Within the typical patriarchal society, men are offered a high degree of leeway in extra-marital affairs. Affairs are practically expected of them, and serve as signs of their virility. There is a double standard for women, who are expected to be chaste and sexless. Characters like Calixta change all that. Even Clarissa, who does not seem interested in sex, feels her freedom poignantly because she is not a…