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The historical perspective in literary criticism interprets works of literature in terms of the historical and cultural context in which they were written. It seeks to explain texts in light of the ideological, intellectual, and cultural ideologies that were dominant at the time. In addition, literary texts are examined through the lens of their authors. Accordingly, it involves an understanding of the writers’ biographies, including their social backgrounds and how they might have influenced their worldviews. This essay seeks to offer a historical criticism of Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.” It argues that “The Story of an Hour” is a feminist resistance against the patriarchal ideology and male chauvinism that were dominant during the 19th century and which restricted the freedom and rights of women.
Kate Chopin was born in 1950, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father died when she was five, and was brought up by her mother and grandmother. She also attended a school that was run by nuns. This early upbringing in a dominantly feminine environment must have played a critical role in shaping Chopin’s worldviews about gender relations in society (Linforth 83). At the same time, she grew up at a time when the rights of women were almost non-existent, explaining her early rebellion against the dominant societal norms that tended to domesticate women while allowing men unlimited freedoms. For instance, she started smoking early, was very assertive with her opinions, and equally independent with her life. She walked the city streets alone and engaged in public debates on issues that covered social and political problems of the time. Her male-like traits marked her out as a woman who fell short of the societal expectations of the ideal housewife- submissive and indoor-oriented (Waal and Korner 179). Her independence and feminist leanings became more evident after the death of her husband; she ended having a relationship with a married man. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of her works focus on addressing issues that affect women in society. Indeed, it is arguable that Chopin’s writings advanced feminist ideas long before the feminist movement came into force. She wrote at a time when women’s freedoms, especially in Louisiana, were not legally recognized and wives were considered the lawful property of their husbands (Oakes 82). Thus, Chopin portrayed in her stories heroines who were way ahead of their time in terms of the brazenness and sensuality with which they confronted male domination. She borrowed from her own experiences in Louisiana to create her protagonists, who triumphed over the oppression and restrictions that were brought to bear upon them by society. This was especially the case in the slaveholding Southern society, where even white women did not enjoy significantly better privileges than the slaves.
In this understanding, “The Story of an Hour,” portrays the ways in which marriage repressed women. Consequently, Louise Mallard, the main protagonist, feels liberated when her husband dies in a train accident. The death of her husband is symbolic to the collapse of patriarchy and its restrictions upon women, an eventuality that Chopin anticipated in her stories. It is only after the death of her husband that Mallard regains control over her life. She often portrays heroines who are at variance with societal norms in her quest to achieve autonomy for her female protagonists at a time when women were supposed to play subordinate roles to men.
In this regard, the relief that Mallard feels upon receiving the news of her husband’s death is, in the lens of the social norms dominant at the time, unforgivable. She is expected to display remorse for losing her man, the pillar of her life. However, the oppression that men represent compels her to celebrate inwardly rather than mourn. Her sense of freedom and new life is suggested by her anticipation for a future free of control by men. After receiving the news, she locked herself in her room and looking out through the window, “she could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life” (Chopin 52). The reference to spring symbolizes the promise of new life. The death of her husband symbolizes the collapse of the chains of patriarchy that restricts her freedom. At a time when patriarchy held strong sway in defining gender relations, Chopin portrays heroines who long for the removal of men from their lives. When she looks outside through the open window, Mallard sees clouds, birds, and people below in the street, and her spirit yearns for freedom; for the ungoverned life of the chirping birds and the unrestricted freedom of the soaring clouds.
The manner in which the bad news of her husband’s death is conveyed to her suggests that women are considered emotionally weak. Keen not to destabilize her psychologically, “great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death.” (Chopin 52). The gentle treatment she receives does not suggest a caring attitude towards men, but rather reflect the understanding that they were weak and could not deal with harsh realities, and were therefore treated like children. It is ironical that Mallard does not break down and starts mourning as it would have been expected of any woman in her situation. Widowhood was considered as a vulnerable situation for women because men were recognized as the pillars of their lives. However, Chopin intentionally portrays a protagonist who welcomes the loneliness and vulnerability of widowhood chiefly to advocate for the independence of women in society. Chopin is making a strong statement that women can take care of themselves. She asserts the ability of women to live independent of men through the satisfaction and relief that Mallard experiences after the death of her husband. The fact that she is advancing this idea at a time when women were considered subordinate to men underscores the feminist ideological leanings of the story. “Story of an Hour” is therefore a portrayal of female rebellion against male domination.
Chopin writes her story within the context of the 19th century Southern culture that recognized women as the property of their men. This deviance against established norms not only portrays the oppression that women endured under patriarchy, but also shows seeks to undermine the notion that women ought to be dependent upon men. Mrs. Mallard illustrates the desire of women to be free of men when she celebrates rather than mourning the death of her husband. Chopin portrays this desire when she writes that “when she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under the breath: "free, free, free!" (Chopin 53). The death of her husband marks the end of living in pretense; of pretending to be comfortable under the dominance and control he had over her life. Charlotte Perkins Gilman portrays a similar theme of women finding liberation when the men in their lives are removed in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The narrator finds freedom to write when her husband faints, similar to the death of Mrs. Mallard’s husband. The reference to the freedom to write suggests the desire that women had to express their own views, but could not do so because societal norms required them to be submissive to the demands and opinions of men. This incidence also alludes to the lack of freedom for women’s participation in intellectual like learning during the 19th century. The situation of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper portrays the injustice that women suffered in a deeper sense, in that the writing opportunity she was denied was just a hobby rather than an intellectual activity that threatened the position of men. Thus, Gilman portrays the extent to which women’s rights and freedoms were suppressed during the 19th century; they could not even think for themselves, enjoy their private fantasies through such harmless hobbies as writing. Consequently, the narrator has to be “sly” whenever she had an opportunity to write, “or else meet with heavy opposition" (Gilman 6). He husband claims that for women to show anger is a sign of “lack of self-control,” and she "takes pain" to control herself before him, (Gilman 8). The idea of struggling to please men or avoid annoying them suggests a condition of female servitude on behalf of men.
Finally, “The Story of an Hour” captures the piecemeal achievements of feminism over the years. Chopin suggests that women could not attain long term freedom through the symbolic appearance of her husband at the end of the story and her fainting upon realizing that her freedom was illusionary. The title of the story is symbolic in this regard. It suggests the brevity of the protagonist’s freedom, since it was exactly an hour from the time she receive the news of her husband’s death and when she walks in through the door. Perhaps Chopin was hinting at the challenges that women will encounter in fighting for their freedom. This idea is rendered relevant considering the challenges that women still face today in competing with men in education, career growth, and ownership of property.