The Story of an Hour: a Feminist Critique

The Story of an Hour starts out with a young woman “with a heart trouble” being given news of her husband’s death by accident.  She is seen as weak and fragile by those around her-Josephine begs her not to make herself ill, which makes the reader wonder if this has happened before, and what might have occurred to make herself ill.  She could be prone to some illness, with real heart trouble, but the wording of the heart trouble makes it seem very vague.  However, her whispered exultations of “free, free, free!” suggest that perhaps she has made herself ill before out of some sort of emotion-a sense of being in a cage.

The young woman is freed by her husband’s death, though the people around her interpret her emotions in the much more sociably acceptable terms of grief.  To be fair, she likely does feel some measure of grief for her husband, as “she wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms.”  Her reaction gives more credence to her being an emotional woman, and her behavior can be interpreted as grief.  However, once she has cried herself out, she retreats to her room, where a transformation is seen to take place.

She is, in the wake of death, greeted with images of life and renewal that she sees outside of her window.  This imagery is highly relevant, for she begins to feel new life in herself.  Almost suddenly, she is overwhelmed by an overwhelming new emotion, one that overcomes her and causes her to chant “free, free, free!” to herself under her breath.  She feels “a monstrous joy” in the death of one that “never looked save with love upon her”.  As she says, “There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself”.

This phrase is particularly telling in this context.  “There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself”.  Though her sister and friend Richards seem to expect her grief, she feels that she has been relieved of a great imprisonment.  She only sometimes feels love for her husband, which might suggest that she married because other’s expected her to, or through an arranged marriage, which the old-fashioned style of the piece suggests could be common.  For years, she has been subservient and bound by the will of her husband, never mind that it was never a cruel will and that the captor loved his captive, and yes, sometimes the captive loved him back.  But she was bound nonetheless, with her husband’s “powerful will bending hers…[a] kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.”

From a feminist perspective, this story illustrates the binary that existed and still exists today.  Her sister and friend don’t see to recognize her plight,, the way that she feels trampled upon and subdued.  Indeed, she did not recognize herself the strictures that she operated under until the shackles were lifted and loosened.  They only attribute her raging emotions to the fact that she is weak and emotional.  However, it raises the question of whether she is truly weak, at least in the way that we mean it.  She has gone along with what society expects of her and married her husband, who she is obligated to live for completely and totally (though he loves her, there is no hint of him living for her-the imagery associated with his regard to her makes it seem heavy and highly imposing).  Of course her family and friends think she might make herself ill-likely in the past she has thrown a tantrum (supported by words likening her to a child that “has sobbed itself to sleep”, thus perhaps associating her with a child in the minds of the reader-and revealing how her loving family views her.  Then again, in a the story she is treated almost like a child, one that must be watched over lest she do herself harm).  She may have expressed depression or mood swings at being forced to live in this patriarchal society.

Her repression seems a matter of course for the people around her.  Her sister and friend interpret her reactions according to their model that a woman should be grieved to see her husband die.  The true irony lies at the end, where she is said to have died of “the joy that kills” where the reader knows that it is more likely that she dies of extreme grief.  In a way, she will not go back into her cage, even if the only option to keep her free lies in death.  Furthermore, it is interesting how her death is worded-the doctors say that “she died of heart disease-the joy that kills”.  It makes you wonder whether this sort of thing happens often for the doctors to have a label for it.  Perhaps there was a plethora of young women dying from overwhelming joy?  If so, how many cases were actually joy, but really women dying from the crushing futility of their lives?  Her death was a result of not being able to go back to her repression.  She was given a taste of freedom and emerged the “Goddess of Victory”-only to have that victory crushed and taken away from her.  Her husband does not see her repression either, but it is also telling that the other characters in the story are given names, but the young woman is given no name by anyone in the play.

She is invisible and marginalized by virtue of her sex and married state, and if Josephine or Richards were to be asked, she might call her “my sister”  or by her husband’s name.  They would not be likely to see her as a separate entity and would be surprised by her desire to been seen as separate and free from her husband.

2 Comments

  1. xjoyx said,

    October 3, 2011 at 10:30 am

    Really good analysis. Hope to read more of you!

  2. hpowers1968 said,

    October 19, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    100/100

    fantastic job


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