Kate Chopin's 1894 short story "The Story of An Hour" depicts a major event in a minimalist fashion -- most of the action of the tale takes place in the mind of the protagonist, Louise Mallard. The story fits well with modern summaries of Chopin's achievement in longer fiction: her well-known novel The Awakening, published five years after "The Story of An Hour," would revisit many of the same themes depicted in the earlier story, but will dramatize them in large broad colorful strokes, endeavoring accurately to depict the vanishing world of Creole New Orleans at the same time as they depict, in Martha Cutter's words, "stronger, less conventional female characters" (Cutter 34). In his survey of the nineteenth century American novel, Gregg Crane notes that in The Awakening "Chopin convincingly dramatizes how an unnameable and relatively faint discontent grows into a very real emotional disturbance and eventually leads not only to actions and decisions contrary to established arrangements and social customs, but also to catastrophe and death." (Crane 166-7). To a certain degree, this is an accurate summary of "The Story of an Hour" as well, a much shorter narrative which will entail the same vague discontent growing into a sincere emotional disturbance, which encapsulates a potential scenario that is potentially subversive of the established (and patriarchal) social order, but finally leads to the ineluctable fact of death. The difference between Chopin's treatment of all these themes in "The Story of an Hour" is that it is not a novel: the same actions that Chopin will treat at her leisure in a novel are here treated in the space of about a page. This act of stylistic and cognitive compressions means that the best approach to take in an analysis of "The Story of an Hour" is rhetorical, with close attention to Chopin's language and literary style, in order to see how this short tale manages to pack in such large meanings within the most minimal storytelling framework possible.
The opening sentence of the story carefully sets up the ending, since Chopin is working with such limited space that it resembles more the crafting of a prose-poem than a fictional narrative: we are told that Mrs. Mallard "was afflicted with heart trouble" so "great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death." Of course Chopin is performing a number of different functions with this opening besides the mere set-up for her final plot twist: we will note the ambiguity in the euphemism "heart trouble" which may indicate that Louise Mallard's affliction is possibly related not merely to her circulatory system, but her emotional life. The use of the word "break" in such close proximity within the same sentence (when the next sentence immediately refers to "broken sentences" also) summons to the reader's ear the echo of the phrase "heartbreak." To a certain extent, "The Story of an Hour" is a tale of love and loss, although it performs complicated reversals with the reader's expectations -- in any case, these hints of heartbreak at the outset suggest the deeper emotional currents of the story which Chopin, in carefully depicting the buttoned-down and emotionally repressed milieu of the late 19th century American haute-bourgeoisie. (Chopin will tell us a little later in the story that Mrs. Mallard had "a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength" -- in other words, she is not alienated from the standard bourgeois virtues.) Yet Louise Mallard will react emotionally and, as Chopin notes, atypically to the newspaper account which lists her husband Brently Mallard as being among those killed in a "railroad disaster." Chopin informs us that Louise "did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance" -- the significance, of course, is widowhood and solitude. Ironically once Louise gives way to the expression of grief, weeping as Chopin tells us "with sudden, wild abandonment" -- a phrase which would be more appropriate describing sexual passion than bereavement -- and then "went to her room alone" and "would have no one follow her." In other words, it is clear that Louise is not fearing the solitude of widowhood necessarily. She understands it and courts it with preternatural immediacy. The rest of the story will take place more or less within the confines of Louise's room, and her subjectivity.
Again, Chopin chooses her words carefully -- in a story of only a thousand words, the language must be highly deliberate -- and as Louise begins to search her thoughts, Chopin uses the language of literary suspense to keep Louise's realization from attaining a clarity too early in the story's perfect arc. Chopin writes that
There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.
This seems to indicate that Louise Mallard's own epiphany, upon learning of her husband's death, is not only "too subtle and elusive to name," it is probably also something that should not be spoken -- something transgressive. Bert Bender connects Louise's agonies to a larger strain in Chopin's fiction at the time, which reflected Chopin's "growing sense that love might be nothing more than sexual desire, and that it is inconstant" (Bender 200). Certainly there is a consciously sexual element to Chopin's portrayal of her protagonist at this moment, as we are told that "her bosom rose and fell tumultuously" as "she was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will -- as powerless as her two slender hands would have been." This invokes, shockingly, the metaphoric imagery of rape to describe Louise's epiphany, and again a moralistic 19th century sexual term -- "abandoned" -- must be used to describe the epiphany. It consists, of course, of Louise's realization that she is "free, free, free" -- this is the major shock of the story, that her grief gives way to a vertiginous sense of liberation, and one that also seems to compare the position of the middle-class housewife as being analogous to that of a chattel slave (part of the bygone Creole culture that Chopin is otherwise concerned with documenting elsewhere in her fiction). Chopin describes the moment as one of an almost sexual response: Louise's eyes suddenly grow "keen and bright," "her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body." It is not the expected reaction of a grieving widow, but of course these references to her "pulses" and "blood" are deliberately intended to recall for the reader the health problem mentioned in the first sentence of the story.
Mrs Mallard's final epiphany, and Kate Chopin's ironic and bleak conclusion, both hinge upon the sense of absolute liberation: Louise "saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely" and "she would live for herself." The moment allows her the contemplation of the lukewarm affections of her marriage ("she had loved him -- sometimes. Often she had not") and ends up contrasting the "love" of her marriage as a far weaker impulse than "this possession of self-assertion" which is what Louise has truly discovered. But Chopin's great irony is that the newspaper account was wrong: the closing moments show Brently Mallard walking in the front door, alive and well, at which point Chopin describes -- in a rhetorically distanced and quizzically ironized fashion -- her heroine's death: "When the doctors…