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The Theme of Duplicity in 'The Story of an Hour'

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Renowned French scholar Blaise Pascal once said: “We are only falsehood, duplicity, contradiction; we both conceal and disguise ourselves from ourselves”, and two short stories, The Story of an Hour (1894) by Kate Chopin and The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe, elaborate the theme of human duplicity with a remarkable mastery. Both stories are written by American authors with an interval of half a century, and each one addresses the theme of deceit in human relations from a different perspective. It is interesting to examine the employment of ‘an unreliable narrator’ point-of-view in both stories as well as to analyze their symbolism.

The Story of an Hour is an account of one hour in the life of Louise Mallard, which passes between the moment she finds out about the death of her husband, Brently, and the instant she dies of heart failure upon seeing Brently alive and well. The author depicts the gradual change of emotions in the heroine after her sister Josephine informs her of her husband’s demise in a railroad accident. Instead of receiving this crushing piece of news in a typical womanly manner, that is, “with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance”, the protagonist utters a wail of “wild abandonment” and, shocked, retreats to her room upstairs. However, instead of feeling stupefied, Louise is acutely aware of her surroundings, for instance, “the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life” that she can see from her open window, as well as the fresh smell of rain in the spring air.

While this young woman is sitting with her head tilted back in her chair, a significant idea dawns on her, “too subtle and elusive to name” but increasingly captivating. Gradually she begins to realize the implications of her new condition: "free, free, free!" The thought that her joy might be ‘monstrous’ is insignificant to the heroine as she understands with delight that she would have “no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself ... body and soul free”. Far from tormenting herself over the death of Brently, Louise exults in the spring day. In a feverish condition, which her sister mistakes for bereavement, Louise goes downstairs only to be greeted by her newly arrived husband, who, ironically, “had been far from the scene of the accident, and did not even know there had been one.” She gasps in shock and her heart gives out; Louise is soon pronounced dead “of the joy that kills.”

Just like Kate Chopin in The Story of an Hour, Edgar Allan Poe in The Tell-Tale Heart advances the theme of human duplicity by using ‘an unreliable narrator’ point-of-view. This kind of narrative, which implies that the truthfulness of the account cannot be relied upon, may occur in literature, film, or drama. The first-person narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart is a man who has murdered and dismembered an old man living in the room next to him, probably his master or landlord. The protagonist insists on his innocence and sanity, but the maniacal precision, with which he recalls the details of his deed to a third party, testifies to the contrary. The protagonist explains his action by saying that he was plagued by the old man’s ‘vulture’ eye.  In his own words, the idea of killing his mental tormentor "haunted <him> day and night". However, by confessing the murder to the police in the concluding scene of The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator relieves himself of the feelings of guilt, with which he was afflicted.

Unlike Poe, Kate Chopin uses not a first-person, but a third-person narrator: “great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death.” However, this account is no less ‘unreliable narration’ as The Tell-Tale Heart and its dénouement produce a not less baffling effect of deception than that achieved by Chopin’s predecessor. The protagonists in both Poe’s and Chopin’s tales experience similar feelings of ambiguity toward another person in their lives. Thus, Louise Mallard envisions her husband’s funeral: “She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her”, and Poe’s character admits: “I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult”. Both of them wish their partners dead.

It is also worthwhile touching on the symbolism in both stories. The ‘vulture’ eye of the old man in The Tell-Tale Heart can be interpreted as the inescapable figure of surveillance and control, from which the protagonist seeks to free himself. His triumphant, although violent, release from somebody else’s dominance is echoed by the symbolism of Mrs. Mallard’s welcoming spring as a new era of her life, finally free from the duplicity of her hidden and outward identities. However, in both stories, it is, symbolically: the heart that eventually lets the protagonists down bringing about their respective ends, the weak heart of Mrs. Mallard, and the pounding ‘tell-tale’ heart of the protagonist’s victim in the eponymous tale, which, in reality, is his own treacherous heart.

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