Feminist Perspectives in a Story of an Hour
A Woman Far Ahead of Her Time, by Ann Bail Howard, discusses the nature of the female characters in Kate Chopin’s novel’s and short stories. Howard suggests that the women in Chopin’s stories are longing for independence and feel torn between the feminine duties of a married woman and the freedom associated with self-reliance. Howard’s view is correct to a point, but Chopin’s female characters can be viewed as more radically feminist than Howard realizes. Rather than simply being torn between independent and dependant versions of her personality, “The Story of an Hour’s” Mrs. Mallard actually rejoices in her newfound freedom, and, in the culmination of the story, the position of the woman has actually been elevated above that of the man, suggesting a much more radically feminist reading than Howard cares to persue.
Much of what Howard has to say about Chopin’s protagonists is appropriate. Her criticism operates from the standpoint that “marriage, said Chopin’s world, was the goal of every woman’s life; service to her husband and her children her duties, passionlessness and submission her assumed virtues, selflessness her daily practice, and self sacrifice her pleasure” (1). Mrs. Mallard definitely lives in a world where these gender values abound. Chopin, for example, describes Mrs. Mallard’s face as one “ whose lines bespoke repression” (439). This is obviously a direct reference to the submission Mrs. Mallard has had to yield up to the patriarchy thus far. She has always had a “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” (440). Her husband’s will is described as a burden Mrs. Mallard has had to shoulder and her critique of this burden suggests her own resentment of its existence. When Mrs. Mallard is finally offered the opportunity to throw off the burdens of marriage and accept a new life of independence, 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”. This suggest a strong contrast between Mrs. Mallard’s view of the position of the married and non-married woman. In one case she would almost rather die; in the other, she embraces life with zeal. This truly proves that Howard’s characterization of the roles and duties of the nineteenth century married woman are precise and well reflected in the case of Mrs. Mallard.
Howard’s argument falters, however, when she fails to recognize the truly radical feminist scope of Chopin’s characters and the messages that she seeks to impart. For example, at one point Howard asserts that “Chopin makes no suggestion that Mrs. Mallard would not mourn for her husband, a man she loved, a man apparently cut off by a railroad accident in the prime of his life”. While it is probably true that Chopin did not wish to alarm...