Story of an Hour: Seen but Not Heard?Women in the Victorian Age
In an age where bustles, petticoats, and veils stifled women physically, it is not surprising that society imposed standards that stifled them mentally. Women were molded into an ideal form from birth, with direction as to how they should speak, act, dress, and marry. They lacked education, employable skills, and rights in any form. Every aspect of their life was controlled by a male authority figure starting with their father at birth and persisting through early womanhood into marriage where it was the husband who possessed control. Men believed that it was the law of the bible for one of the two parties to be superior and the other inferior. Women were ruled over as children and were to be seen?but not heard.
Author and feminist Kate Chopin lived in the height of the Victorian Era and was a first-hand witness to the suppression women endured and accepted in the late 19th century. Unlike most women at the time, Chopin was far from a conformist. Kate showed increasing concern for the plight of women in Victorian age America and she responded with scandalous writings dealing explicitly with love, sex and marriage. In one of her more famous short stories, The Story of an Hour, her refusal to be silenced is all too evident.
Chopin presents a character known simply as Mrs. Mallard. The lack of personal identity is evident in this name. Not once in this story is her first name mentioned illustrating the lack of individuality possessed by these women. The name also reveals another element in the formula representing the ideal Victorian housewife. Mallard ducks are docile, unthreatening creatures that when in flight, fly in form...never wavering from their perfect V. This loyalty to conformity and meekness was the ideal society demanded. The similarity between mallards and women is striking and it is appalling how men ruled over women as if they were masters of animals.
Upon hearing of her husband?s death, Mrs. Mallard was faced with conflicting emotions that she does not quite understand. It was all too clear to her how she should take the horrific news, but to her own surprise; feelings arose that were far from expected. Women were expected to feel helpless without their husbands as many widowed women were thrown into utter poverty and despair at the loss of their husbands? financial support. Mrs. Mallard felt something quite different and she initially did not want to accept the joy she experienced. Upon news of the death, Chopin describes images including the trees being ?aquiver with new spring life?, and sparrows ?twittering in the eaves?. Instead of describing dismal images typical of death, Chopin chooses to have Mrs. Mallard witness images of life and rebirth. Mrs. Mallard even sees patches of blue sky through the clouds, strongly symbolizing good things to come. Instead of grief encompassing her, Mrs. Mallard is overcome with joy. This is not because she is an evil women, nor that her husband was a bad man. This joy comes from the feeling of freedom she is experiencing for the first time in her life. Hope replaces the despair that was to fill the years to come.
Upon seeing her husband alive, Mrs. Mallard dies, ?of joy that kills?. In a sense, joy did kill her. Dissimilar to the doctors? belief, though, it was not the joy of seeing her husband that killed her?it was the joy she had felt when she thought he was dead. This taste of freedom was far too sweet for her to return to the suppressive life that existed with her husband. In the few minutes that she reveled in her newfound independence she managed to erase a lifetime of tolerance and acceptance of a women?s role. Apparently, some things are worse than death.
In writing this tale, Kate Chopin took a massive risk. One could imagine the backlash that contradicting the basic domestic hierarchy could create. She challenged romance and the supremacy of man, which was extremely dangerous in a society ruled by the male race. Kate encouraged women to speak out against their husbands, think for themselves, and live independently. In the few words of The Story