Kate Chopin (1850-1904) is one of my favorite Victorian-era authors. She’s subversive, especially where it concerns the role of women in Victorian society. Now yes, Chopin was an American, but Victorian era expectations were pretty similar here in the US.
“Story of an Hour,” published in 1894, is a really interesting story that defies our expectations. As usual, I’ll summarize and post excerpts, but you can read the whole thing at that link.
Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.
We have a fairly standard opening, here, in a recently-widowed wife. She even starts the story by reacting appropriately:
She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms.
And then the story changes…
Mrs. Mallard goes to her room alone and sits by the window. There’s a lot of Victorian-style description going on as she processes the information over the course of an hour. She sees “the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life,” “a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength. But now there was a dull stare in her eyes,” and “she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.”
Then she thinks:
But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome.
There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. 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.
Widowhood, throughout much of history, was a freeing state for women to be in. She wasn’t a girl controlled by her
father parents or a wife controlled by her parents. Some societies pushed her back under her sons, like ancient, Republican Rome, but many others allowed her new freedoms.
Chopin is shining a light on this; she was a widow herself who turned to writing to support herself and her children. Mrs. Mallard continues in her solitude,
“Free! Body and soul free!” she kept whispering.
She emerges triumphant, with a new vigor for life, wishing that her life, free, be long…and then…
It was Brently Mallard who entered, a little travel-stained, composedly carrying his grip-sack and umbrella. He had been far from the scene of the accident…
A twist in the tale in which her husband is not dead at all. Richard, the bearer of bad news, and Mrs. Mallard and her sister all see him in shock, and the former and latter try to protect Mrs. Mallard from this new revelation, but it’s too late…
When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease–of the joy that kills.
“The joy that kills,” obviously, tries to say that she was so delighted to see him alive that she died, but we know the truth.