The Story of an Hour: Summary and Analysis
July 24, 2023
Students who read this “The Story of an Hour” summary will gain a comprehensive understanding of a classic American text. In this article we’ll cover symbols and motifs, as well as several other significant literary devices. We’ll also revisit Kate Chopin’s past, and consider how a 19th century woman wrote relevant yet timeless works of fiction. Before reading on, make sure you’ve familiarized yourself with The Story of an Hour. (As the title suggests, it shouldn’t take more than an hour.)
“The Story of an Hour” Summary: The Author
Kate Chopin, born Katherine O’Flaherty in 1850 in St. Louis, Missouri, became renowned as a Southern writer of short stories and novels. Yet she didn’t set out to write. Rather, the nuns who instructed her at the Sacred Heart Academy prepared her for the life of a well-to-do wife. She learned to conduct herself in matters of finance and household expenses. She consumed books of poetry, allegories, fairy tales, and novels. With the help of her great-grandmother, she also learned French, music, and history. Another teacher, Mary O’Meara, played a significant role by encouraging and forming Chopin’s talent in writing.
At the age of 20, she married Oscar Chopin, a cotton broker, and moved to New Orleans. Over the next eight years, she gave birth to six children and moved again, to Natchitoches, Louisiana. Only after her husband’s death in 1882, and her mother’s death three years later, did Kate Chopin start writing for an audience. Initially she wrote for therapeutic reasons, to combat depression born from loss and monetary struggles. (Her husband’s failed business left her with a debt of what would amount to 1.27 million dollars today.) By 1894, she’d published a number of short stories in newspapers and magazines, including “The Story of an Hour.”
Kate Chopin’s Works and Reception
Chopin’s stories showcased Louisiana culture and creole heritage. She set many stories in her own city of Natchitoches. Readers knew her as a Southern writer, writing with a particular geographical flavor. In fact, Chopin’s work, though regional, often attempted to go beyond identifiers of gender, class, and race. She wanted to change opinions on such matters by dropping characters into situations that would dissolve or muddle accepted conventions. In her story “Desiree’s Baby,” Chopin tackles a controversial topic of the time: miscegenation, or the state of being mixed-race. Her white character Armand must confront his own racism when he discovers he has black ancestry.
“The Story of an Hour” Summary (Continued)
As for the quality of her writing, critics did not remark so much on her literary finesse. Yet they condemned certain stories, as well as her most famous novel from 1899, The Awakening, as having immoral content. They found that Chopin’s depictions of female repression, troubled marriages, sexual constraints, and motherhood challenged prevailing opinions on a women’s place in society. Readers of “The Yellow Wallpaper” will remember how laws and codes prevented women from obtaining the same freedoms as men. We’ll see in the coming “The Story of an Hour” analysis how marriage acted as another institution to constrain women.
“The Story of an Hour” Summary
So what happens in “The Story of an Hour”? We can summarize this short story as the following. A woman with a heart condition learns of her husband’s death from her sister and husband’s friend. The woman retreats to her room. She sits facing an open window, as unknown feelings overwhelm her. After some minutes, she feels something beyond sorrow for her husband: an elated sense of freedom. She realizes that the rest of the years of her life will belong to her, and her alone.
She gets up and goes to her sister, who’s been calling through the door, attempting to check on her. Together they descend the stairs. Meanwhile, down below, the front door opens and the husband appears in the doorway, alive. The sister shrieks, and the friend attempts to shield the sight of the husband from the wife. Too late—the wife dies. According to the doctors who arrive shortly after, her death was brought on by excessive joy.
“The Story of an Hour” Summary: Characters
Four main characters populate “The Story of an Hour.” The first sentence introduces us to our protagonist, Mrs. Louise Mallard, who learns of her husband’s death. Thus, the husband, Mr. Brently Mallard, emerges as a second, offstage character. Josephine, Louise’s sister, and Richards, Brently’s friend, comprise the other characters. Josephine appears as a doting and considerate sister. She worries about her sister’s health in response to the news. When the sisters appear at the top of the stairs near the end, Louise is clasping her sister’s waist. This gesture implies an intimacy between them. And yet this intimacy does not extend to the Mallard’s marriage, which has a stronger hold over Louise than her sister. Josephine can only see her sister’s true feelings through a “keyhole.” She mistakes Louise’s emancipation for grief.
“The Story of an Hour” Summary (Continued)
Richards appears just as considerate as Josephine, as well as logical and efficient in delivering the news of Brently’s death. Perhaps he works for the press, for he hears of his friend’s death in a newspaper office. Richards acts decisively at the end, too, attempting to shield Louise from something that will make her heart race. The doctors who arrive, while inconsequential as characters, prove to have more agency than Louise. They (falsely) write the end of her story in her place. Finally, offstage characters appear in “the list of ‘killed’” men, women, and children on the wrecked train. These characters play no part in the unfolding domestic scene. However, they serve as a reminder of the world the characters inhabit. Though women faced many ordeals in 19th century America, daily life exposed everyone to brutal risks and realities.
Characters in Depth: The Married Couple
Mrs. Mallard initially seems like a delicate, vulnerable character, due to her “heart trouble.” This nebulous affliction may give readers some doubt about her health. While the immediate mention of her heart may appear as a red flag, it could also act as a false alarm. Readers familiar with the 19th century will know that doctors at the time often misdiagnosed women. Fainting from wearing a tightly-tied corset, for example, could lead to a diagnosis of “nerves” and a month of bedrest.
The reader can deduce little about Brently. Everything we know of him comes through the siphon of his wife. As Louise digests the news of his death, she thinks about how “she had loved him—sometimes. Often she had not.” He does not appear in her eyes as a cruel man. And yet, Brently had what his wife calls a “powerful will.” He used this force of character over her, “bending hers” in “blind persistence.” Brently imposed his views, rules, and desires on his wife, simply because he believed she belonged to him. (While various states had begun enacting Married Women’s Property Acts, men still considered a marriage contract akin to a property deed. The property, in this case, was the wife herself.)
As Brently’s persona takes shape in Louise’s mind, so too does her character sharpen in the reader’s mind. Beneath her sickly appearance, we find compassion and a ferocious desire to live freely. Louise’s immediate tears for her husband and lack of calculation in wishing to be free of him reveal her kindness. Yet her joy at finding herself emancipated reveals an independence and strength of character.
“The Story of an Hour” Summary: Symbols and Motifs
A major symbol emerges in the form of Louise’s heart. While a heart traditionally represents love, Louise’s heart complicates this tradition. The “trouble” with her heart implies that trouble exists in her relationship. Though Brently “had never looked save with love upon her,” his feelings were only partly reciprocated. Louise’s love for her husband fluctuates—how could she fully love a man who expected her to behave like property? A closer look at the heart also sheds light on the motif of indoor/outdoor spaces. Just as Louise remains inside, with no freedom to move about independently, her heart resides within herself. No one can see its true feelings. Her feelings remain unknown, deemed irrelevant to her role of dutiful wife.
“The Story of an Hour” Summary (Continued)
Other symbols support this indoor/outdoor motif. An open window in Louise’s room provides a passage between the two. Yet Louise cannot cross this boundary, she can only look out. (This window is already open when Louise returns to her room, implying that she contemplates this off-limits space frequently.) The square is also “open” and filled with noises: a peddler hawking goods, a neighbor singing, and chirping birds. The outside is full of life, as well as spring weather, which represents rebirth and new possibilities. Finally, the symbols of keys cement the indoor/outdoor motif. Josephine attempts to reach Louise by calling through a keyhole, yet marriage has created a wall between the sisters. It is Brently who possesses a latchkey, as seen at the end of the story. This key empowers him to move freely between indoor and outdoor spaces.
What’s in a Name?
Finally, we find another symbol in the “Mallard” surname. A mallard is a wild duck, from which comes the domesticated species. In marrying a Mallard, Louise has taken on a domesticated role, yet she seems to wish for a wilder existence. Male mallards have showy, iridescent colors. It doesn’t take much imagination to anthropomorphize the male mallard. It seems to be wearing a white collar, green hat, and brown suit. As for its more subdued partner, the female mallard has a plain, speckled brown plumage.
Finally, the mallard symbol adds to another subtler motif, this time of flight. As Louise watches the clouds, she realizes that Brently’s death will allow her to fly free of her subordinate position. The feeling that overwhelms her seems to come “creeping out of the sky.” And finally, when she emerges from her room, she “carried herself like a goddess of Victory.” Artists often depict this goddess with wings.
“The Story of an Hour” Summary: More Literary Devices
While examining the text for clues, we should mention several other literary devices that shape our analysis. For example, while symbolizing troubled love, Louise’s weak heart also foreshadows her sudden death. As it turns out, Josephine and Richards were right to worry. Another literary device, allusion, occurs when Chopin compares Louise to the goddess of Victory. In Greek mythology, this goddess, also called Nike, represents triumph. This allusion would have worked particularly well in Chopin’s day, when Greek and Roman Classics were widely studied. Chopin would have seen representations of Nike looking valiant in books, museums, and reproductions.
Finally, Chopin’s subtle and suggestive prose style could be considered another literary device. Her sentences, seemingly simple, discreet, and demure, act as a reflection of Louise’s multilayered personality. Through the writing itself, the reader can enter into her thoughts, and access a complex layering of ideas and emotions.
“The Story of an Hour” Themes
Major “The Story of an Hour” themes build on the symbols and motifs previously mentioned. Together, a troubled relationship, indoor/outdoor spaces, and flight work to critique the constrictive institution of marriage in America. While Louise does not appear to be in an abusive or manipulative relationship, the fact is that she feels trapped. While her husband lives, “she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.” When she hears he’s dead, she glimpses “a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely.”
Neither Louise nor Brently can fully live while the other is alive. Brently expects a humble, obedient, submissive wife—a wife without a will of her own. Yet Louise has a heart that beats a singular rhythm. As a wife, she must submit to living a reduced life, veiled behind pretense. She must feign being a person she is not, loving a man she does not.
While we know little about the circumstances of their marriage, we can guess Louise’s parents arranged it to some degree. Perhaps Louise selected Brently from among a larger set of suitors. Whatever the case, she must pretend to love Brently, and to mourn him. This charade is part of her marriage contract. Only as a widow can Louise benefit from the advantages of marriage without sacrificing her identity. This theme points to a larger critique Chopin makes throughout her works on the limited power of 19th century women.
“The Story of an Hour” Analysis
Much goes unsaid in “The Story of an Hour,” which makes analysis particularly important. For example, we know nothing of Brently’s income, industry, or fortune. We can presume he belonged to the upper-middle classes and has a sizeable amount of money tucked away. Otherwise, his apparent death would only add to Louise’s problems. Without money, Louise would have had to find work, and few jobs existed for women back then. While Louise might have become a governess, poorer widows would look for work in sweatshops, or even on the street.
Brently lives the life Louise envies. He can move about freely, on foot or by train. In fact, this train trip plants a mystery which remains unanswered by the end of the story. Why did Brently not ride his train? Did business—or pleasure—take him elsewhere? And why did he not send a telegram? Did he think his wife need not know? Whatever the reason, be it negligence, accident, or intentional deception, Brently’s lack of communication points to an imbalance of power. He answers to no one, while Louise remains bound to him.
“The Story of an Hour” Analysis Continued
Louise’s death can come as a shock to readers, despite the foreshadowing through her troubled heart. We can’t know for sure why Chopin gave her protagonist a tragic ending. Yet we can attempt our own explanations by considering the work as a whole. For a short story, “The Story of an Hour” is particularly short—more like the length of a fable. Fables impart basic truths or morals about life. In this light, we might find some moral or truth that Chopin wished to impart in Louise’s death.
Louise’s brief dreams of a better future are quashed when she sees Brently at the door. She realized that she remains his wife. Thus, the death of Louise can be read as a metaphor to represent the death of hope. Certainly, women had little room for hopes and dreams when their futures were decided for them by others.
Finally, when the doctors arrive, they pronounce Louise dead of “heart disease—of the joy that kills.” Yet readers have been given a window into Louise’s heart. We know she died of great disappointment. The joy her heart felt in finding herself free “warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.” It was the sight of her husband that stopped her heart. Louise’s tragedy is twofold. Not only does she die, but she remains misunderstood in death as she was in life. Even her memory becomes prisoner to a man who did not know who she could truly be.
“The Story of an Hour” Summary – What’s Next?
Readers who enjoyed this “The Story of an Hour” summary may want to try works by Henry James and Edith Wharton. And, for more English literature resources, look no further than the following resources: