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Marital Oppression In "The Story Of An Hour"

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In "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin, we are introduced to Mrs. Mallard, an unloving, heartless, woman who is overjoyed by the passing of her husband--or at least that is the common misconception. Mrs. Mallard although perceived as inhuman is actually more human than most would like to believe. While her actions may seem questionable or even to be condemned, they are hardly unthinkable in light of the issues involving marriage and the woman's role throughout history. The story itself presents a valid argument in favor of Louise as she is portrayed as the oppressed wife finally set free after her husband's death.

In the beginning of "The Story of an Hour," Mrs. Mallard is just a typical wife. It is not until she hears of her husband's death that she then simply becomes Louise, now an individual, no longer overshadowed by her husband. Following her husband's death, Louise feels she will no longer suffer a "powerful will bending her" (14), thus indicating she had lacked a voice in the marriage. Chopin clearly indicates this lack of freedom and individuality in Louise's marriage stating, "[. . .] that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature." (14). This statement reflects how men and women oppress each other, denying one another freedom and a sense of identity. This is in line with the common view that women lost their individuality because their, "legal existence had been extinguished by the status of marriage." (Robson). Next, we learn that Louise actually begins to accept, even enjoy the notion of a life by herself, as Chopin writes the years "that would belong to her absolutely [. . .] she would live for herself." (14). Louise would now be free, her own identity, with a renewed sense of self-assertion. "Free! Body and soul free!" (15). This newfound freedom is in effect a new motivation for Louise. Before experiencing such freedom, Louise was petrified of the thought of life being long; now however, she felt herself wishing, even praying for life to be long. This is evidenced with the following quote, "She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long." (15). This depicts an ever embracing Louise, finally liberated of the powerful institution of marriage. What is more, this quote serves to further support the idea that Louise indeed felt trapped, she was unhappy and yet, the thought of her husband dying hadn't crossed her mind, only the relief from her own passing was her wish.

Moreover, "The Story of an Hour", shows that Louise felt her husband's domination through the "powerful will bending her" (14), later she is in "this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being." (15). This last statement indicates this newborn contention in Louise, made only possible by Mr. Mallard's death. In Mr. Mallard's death, Louise finds herself being able to assert herself in unimaginable ways; Mrs. Mallard is no longer limited to the confines of her marriage. Ultimately, all of this new brazenness and freedom is dependent

on Mr. Mallard's death, thus one would not have occurred without the other. The fact that Louise on her own indicates the bending of her will to her husband's depicts the hard reality of women and the passive persona it entails, completely in contrast to this new person emerged--Louise. Louise would now only live for herself, something that was previously unimaginable and unattainable. After years of marital confinement and oppression, Louise is suddenly a free woman; the emotion is so exciting that it cannot be hidden and is so profound that Louise dare not oppress it.

The character of Louise is not uncommon, even in the modern world of today there are still many women who assume a subordinate role, which is visible in still highly traditional societies such as that of Islam or Latin cultures. In fact, according to Michael C. Kearl,

"Women have always had lower status than men, but the extent of the gap between the sexes varies across cultures and time (some arguing that it is inversely related to social evolution). In 1980, the United Nations summed up the burden of this inequality: Women, who comprise half the world's population, do two thirds of the world's work, earn one tenth of the world's income and own one hundredth of the world's property."

However, to make a strong case, it is important to revisit the actual time in which this story was written--the 1800's. At this time women had essentially no rights, they were mere objects of possession of their fathers and later their husbands. "In 1800, patriarchy was still the norm. By law, women were property of their fathers first, then their husbands. Married women faced particular discrimination." (Women). Women could not conduct business for themselves, could not own land, and could not petition for divorce. In fact, "Until the 1970s women constituted a distinct legal caste: laws subordinated women to men in the family, restricted women's access to public life, attached women's obligations to the domestic sphere, and denied women independent personhood." (Mink). In today's society where women can now become CEO's of major corporations, enter into contracts for property, and obtain a quickie divorce, the reality of a woman living in the 1800's is not only unthinkable but unacceptable. Yet even so, it is funny and ironic that the typical reaction of students, especially women, after reading "The Story of an Hour," is still one of disapproval of Mrs. Mallard given the reality of her situation. This situation is most accurately described by Betty Friedan as a "comfortable concentration camp."

It is much easier to condemn a person than to take the time and ask what their motivation is. The true question that should be asked is the motivation behind Mrs. Mallard's response to her husband's death, is Louise truly a heartless woman worthy of our condescension? As noted before, Louise was obviously an oppressed woman. Moreover, in light of the common treatment of marriage and women in the 1800's, there is little doubt that Louise was evidently trapped in her marriage, unable to divorce her husband despite the fact that she was noticeably unhappy, mainly because she simply would not have been able to, but also because she would have been condemned by society. When this is taken into consideration it is fairly easy



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