Feminism and Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin's Story of an Hour
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Story of an hour by Kate Chopin illuminates a timeless issue of recognizing the role of a woman in the society as being equal to a man; as a separate independent psycho-emotional unit; as a free individual from stereotypes and gender roles implemented in the course of history. Kate Chopin went ahead of her time in capturing an invisible to the eye, yet felt by the heart of every woman conflict of self-assertion, fulfillment and self-identity. Hicks (2009) writes “Patriarchal attitudes dominated the minds of American people in the nineteenth century and Chopin’s work encouraged women to look at their situations from a critical point of view, one in which women were unfairly treated because of their status as female” (p. 2). The writer becomes one of the proto-feminist writers raising this question through in her writing, being able to express the concern of all women throughout the world. Kate Chopin opens of a new era of the problems kept voiceless inside and are now dramatically put on paper to express the sentiments, intrigues, and true feelings of a woman.
Kate Chopin’s expressive leaning to the feminism was not accidental. She was born in 1856 in a wealthy family, which later on has sent her to a boarding school carrying a name of the Sacred Heart Academy, where she grew up, due to her stubborn character, what already at the age of 5 was quite unusual for a lady and frightening for the man of the family. In the school, Kate has experienced the first traits of gender separation, when female representatives have been always kept ignorant to the affairs in overall. After her father was killed, the women had to raise Kate all by themselves, which eventually has helped to establish independency and self-care in her thinking patterns, having a brave heart and a strong mind.
Kate Chopin’s style of writing can be evaluated as being biographic, as most of her works represent her own experiences or hints of them, as well as they portray typical situations happening at that time in the social background. Coulter (2009) writes: “Kate’s childhood experiences and memories are reflected in many of her works that were considered sexually controversial when published yet today are acclaimed and viewed as important literary contributions” (p. 3). In 1870 Kate Chopin got married to a successful businessman Oscar Chopin. The family settled in the New Orleans. The Chopins bore six children, which they raised according to the best rules and traditions. The family was described as an exemplary wealthy family: “they attended the opera, horse racing and would vacation on Grand Isle, a Creole resort in the gulf of Mexico” (Coulter, 2009, p. 2). However, in 1882 Oscar Chopin has died, leaving her alone to support six children, so she moved back to St. Louis, where she found the guts to start expressing her sadness, guilt, happiness, remorse and other feelings which she had accumulated through the years in her literature. Many things were said about Kate Chopin as an adulterous, chauvinistic, arrogant and ahead of her time. Vieira (2012) writes about the author: “Kate Chopin was a pioneer feminist who dared say that women could actually live without a man” (p. 2). Despite the epithets used to describe Kate Chopin, she represents a unique female writer standing as the voice of the majority of women at that time, mirroring the emotional, sexual and intellectual needs of a woman.
This paper aims at defining the thematic statements of feminism in the actions of the main character in Story of an Hour, as well as the means of self-assertion and independence. Keeping in mind the historical background of the gender roles and their representation in the 19th century, this work presents the roles of a man and a woman in the society, and their self-assessment in the context of the family as a social entity. Accounting for the traditional representation of each role, the gender role discrepancies are established through the usage of language in the Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin.
The theme of the story describes the conflict of identity, as well as the conflict of gender roles in the context of a family. The story is set in a typical house of that époque, where Louise Mallard finds out about the death of her husband from a friend of Mr. Mallard, Richard, and is supported by her sister, Josephine. Mrs. Mallard is stupefied by the breaking news about her sudden establishment of loneliness: “She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her” (p. 23). Yet, as she begins to realize the repercussions of this event, Mrs. Mallard becomes enriched with inexplicable positive emotions. With the death of husband a completely new door has been opened in the life of Mrs. Mallard.
Despite the fact that Mrs. Mallard has probably been happily married preceding to such horrible news about losing the person in charge of the house, a man who makes all the decisions, one who brings the income into the family, etc. Nevertheless, as soon as she starts to understand that the dearest person has gone, she does not lose herself, but embraces her freedom, accepting its implications and becomes even more empowered. Emancipation and feministic views are the main subthemes disclosed in Story of an Hour. Chopin develops her personal feministic views through the prism of the story “… 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” (p.23). The author also attempts to explain what women feel exactly while in marriage. She suggests a sticking idea, which breaks the traditional cannons of the marriage at the époque: “She had loved him-sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter?” (22). In such a way, Kate Chopin imposes that love was not an important prerequisite for marrying, establishment of the family, or raising children. Therefore, in a way the death of the husband has opened a legitimate alternative to canonical scenario of a life of a woman.
Louise Mallard represents a fragile feminine soul. However, despite her tender outer image, Louise is a woman-titanium. The reaction towards a dreadful event, which made her feel sorrow and elation enhances her with a unique power. The “storm of grief” (p. 22), which she feels from the beginning is rather an instinctive, intrinsic, responsive emotion, implemented by the centuries of traditions and stereotypes. Mrs. Mallard represents a woman standing on the crossroad of older and contemporary times, a transferring individual into the era of feminism and emancipation. Instead of protecting herself from loneliness, she lets it in: “It is then apparent that obtaining what is considered to be ultimate freedom depends, not on reaching a point and staying there, but on growing with it and letting it lead you” (Gomez, p.4).
In addition to such an unusual excitement by the newly received freedom, Mrs. Mallard experiences another strong emotion: pride of enjoyment. Loneliness is a little death, nevertheless those who accept it, receive a unique opportunity to enjoy the rebirth following by a new life. While Louise sits in her room, she goes through a journey, which signalizes the beginning of the new life as a widow, yet, as a free woman, too: “She 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. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which someone was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves” (p. 24). This scene, contemplated by Mrs. Mallord, can be also interpreted as an opening door towards the accepting of the new identity and self-assertion as a new individual. It seems that being ill with “heart trouble”, now Louise Mallord has been completely cured.
However, at the end of the narrative, Mrs. Malland is condemned by getting back to the reality to the ordinary life of a woman in a patriarchic society. Louise’s husband returns back safe and sound, in good health. Knowing that her husband is alive should have brought her relief. However, having felt the sweet taste of freedom and peace with the self, she feels that she is getting back into the cage. The return of Louise’s husband had triggered the “heart trouble”, both literal and symbolical, returning her back to the state of a wife and a housekeeper, framed by the walls of the house and the gender stereotypes. As Gomez (2012) puts it: “dying, then, was the only way to freedom for Louise, for she knew she could not go back to a state of confinement” (p. 5). The chains of marriage were too strong to be broken. After finally having found her true self, her identity as a woman, emancipation, losing it all back again in favor of recognition of the manhood was impossible to bear.
In conclusion it should be said that Kate Chopin inputs an important investment into the development of the feministic literature, as well as the standpoint of women in the society. Basing her writing on her personal life experiences in order to put on the crucial issues of the feministic movement at the time. The discontentment of the quality of life has lead to an accumulation of psycho-emotional and social package from the conflict between the two genders in the course of the history. The narrative Story of an Hour discusses the imprisoned free spirit of the epoch of the 19th century in the body of the woman, which according to the traditions, gender expectations and cannons of the relationship between a man and a woman, the marital life and life in overall. Kate Chopin takes an interesting approach in illuminating the establishment of self-identity and self-assertion in the course of recognition of loneliness. Going together with Louise through the transformation of the soul the reader passes through the stages of life, death and rebirth. Kate Chopin boldly underlines the meaning of self-assertion for a woman in the 19th century, pushing the reader to the thought that freedom, independence and self-realization, living at least a little for yourself is even worth dying. At the end, establishing the final philosophical feministic statement, Kate Chopin captures the idea that dying is the state of ultimate freedom, happiness and relief is better going back to the ordinary life of suppressed, secondary character in the household, underdeveloped, underperformed woman.