Short story analysis: "The Story of an Hour"
On pages 14-18 in your textbook there is an analysis of Nadine Gordimer's short story "The Moment before the Gun Went Off". The story itself is on pages 9-13.
If you would like to read another analysis of a short story, you have the chance here. This story - "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin - is included here as a listening text (see task 3 on p. 40), and you will find a link to the text version below.
Responding to Literature: “The Story of an Hour”
Although there are no simple answers or shortcuts to working with literature, there are some strategies that might make your task easier. The first step is, of course, to work on understanding the story.
The story you have just read (or indeed listened to, but we shall assume that you have done both in this analysis) by Kate Chopin is short enough for you to be able to re-read several times. The first time you read any story, you should try to read it through without stopping to underline or look up difficult words. Keep in mind that this is your first meeting with the short story. You will have time to get better acquainted with the story on a second or even a third reading.
After a first reading of "The Story of an Hour" you may think one of two things:
a) that this was a relatively easy story to understand and write about, or
b) that you haven’t understood a thing and feel rather desperate at the thought of writing an essay about it.
Instead of focusing on what you haven’t understood, try to write down what you actually have understood. What do you think the story is about? Your first impression of the story might read like this:
The story seems to be about a woman who is told that her husband has been killed in a train accident. She locks herself up in her room for an hour. When she comes out of the room after an hour, she seems quite calm and in control of her emotions. As she gets to the bottom of the stairs, her husband (who wasn’t dead after all) unlocks the front door and at the sight of him, she dies.
Obviously your first impression of the story focuses on the action of the story or plot without really attempting to say why she died.
Now – what is your response to the story? Your first reaction might be one of frustration, and dislike if you found the story difficult. If you were to write down your response it might read as follows:
I don’t really understand why Mrs Mallard, who has a bad heart, dies when her husband comes in the door. Was she so happy at the sight of him that her heart gave out? The doctors at the end of the story seem to think so. Or was she so disappointed that she had lost her freedom that she died of shock? If she wanted to be free that much, why didn’t she just get a divorce?
These are valid questions and are an excellent point of departure for a second reading. This time, make notes of key phrases and look up difficult words. Write down some of your responses as well, whether they are questions, insights, etc.
Before you can begin writing, you must first try to get as complete an understanding of the story as possible. Read the story a second time. Ask yourself the following questions:
– What is the setting?
– Who are the characters?
– Who tells the story? (point of view)
– What is the theme?
What can you say about the setting of the story? You have learned that setting refers to both the time and place in a story. Where the action of the story takes place in our story is relatively easy to state. It takes place in Mrs Mallard’s home and, more specifically, in her room in which she locks herself for an hour. You would even be justified in saying that a large part of the action takes place in her mind. What city this takes place in is of no importance. Country, however, is another matter. Mrs Mallard looks toward the west while she is in her room. In America, the west has always been synonymous with new possibilities.
When the action takes place, on the other hand, is quite important to an understanding of the story. Here your first answer might be that the time of our story is simply “one hour” in the life of Mrs Mallard. Certainly this is true, but it is not enough. The story gives many hints about the season in which the action takes place, as well. A careful reader will pick up on the insistence of “new spring life”. As Mrs Mallard looks out the window, the reader is bombarded with images which emphasize the beginning of new life. Are these relevant to the story? Absolutely. The author chose to put them there.
Equally relevant is the larger understanding of time. When does this story take place? Again there are hints that this is perhaps late 19th or early 20th century. Mrs Mallard’s husband is killed in a “railroad disaster”. Richards sends a “telegram” rather than “telephones” to make sure the news is correct. In her room, Mrs Mallard hears a “peddler crying his wares”. This is a far cry from shopping over the internet in our time. Even the style of the story is an added hint about the time in which the story takes place. The vocabulary, which you may have found difficult the first time you read it, firmly places the story in a less than modern framework.
Why is this important, you might ask? Well, at the time this story takes place it is perhaps more understandable why Mrs Mallard doesn’t just get a divorce. Once we have understood this, it may be easier to understand the outcome of the story as well.
What can you say about the characters of the story? Obviously Mrs Mallard is the most important character or the protagonist of the story. What type of woman is she? We are told she is of delicate health and has heart trouble. She seems to have a passionate nature since she weeps with “sudden, wild abandonment” when she is told her husband is dead. She is young, pretty and the lines of her calm face indicate “repression and even a certain strength”. The word “repression” is a clear hint of unfulfillment.
This is Mrs Mallard’s outward appearance and we are told this directly in the text. This is the easy part. What about what we are not told directly? Does Mrs Mallard face a conflict in the story which she is forced to resolve? Does she undergo any changes in the course of the story? Bottom line – what goes on in her room that only she and the reader know about?
Everyone thinks Mrs Mallard has locked herself in her room to deal with her grief. Inside the room, however, a change comes over her as she looks out the open window at the life around her. Her senses are sharpened. She sees “the tops of trees aquiver with the new spring life”. She smells the “delicious breath of rain in the air”. She hears the peddler, the notes of a distant song and “countless sparrows twittering in the eaves”. We are told that she is waiting for something. We are not kept in suspense long as to what she is waiting for: “free, free, free!” Her eyes become “keen and bright” and she comes alive. As a result of her husband’s death, she has unexpectedly been given the chance to “live for herself”.
Mrs Mallard is a dynamic character – i.e. she changes in the course of the story. Her husband’s death sets in motion the conflict around which the story revolves and the changes which take place in Mrs Mallard. But … it is only Mrs Mallard herself and we the readers who know what has taken place in the room. This is significant if we are to understand the irony of the last sentence.
Point of view
It is also relevant to ask “Who tells the story?” – i.e. what point of view is used? The story is told by someone outside the story and yet we know what goes on inside Mrs Mallard’s mind as she considers her options. This is the third person limited point of view. We are, in other words, permitted to read the thoughts of one of the characters in the story – in this case, the main character. Would the story have been different if it had been told by one of the other characters or by an objective observer who told us nothing about Mrs Mallard’s innermost thoughts? Most certainly. By letting us “eavesdrop” on Mrs Mallard’s thoughts, we are prepared for her transformation from someone who enters her room in a “storm of grief” and who leaves it as a “goddess of Victory”. Nonetheless, on our first reading, we are totally unprepared for the cruel twist of fate when her husband returns, very much alive, thank you!
To begin with, you may have made no attempt to answer the question why Mrs Mallard died at the sight of her husband. After having worked with the story and your tool kit of literary terms, it is obvious that Mrs Mallard is devastated at the loss of her newly found freedom and dies for that reason only. This is believable because we were told early in the story that she had heart disease. The beauty of the story lies, however, in the irony of the last sentence – the total discrepancy between what we as the readers know to be the real reason for her death, and the doctors’ apparent explanation “of joy that kills”. We know that nothing could be further from the truth.
You have now worked with the short story and have a fairly good understanding of what happens in it. At this point it might be useful to ask yourself some additional questions. For example – what clues does the title of the story give you, if any? How important are the first paragraphs to the rest of the story? Go back and re-read the beginning of the story. Why has the author chosen to begin the story in this manner? Why does Mrs Mallard’s window face west? Is there a climax (a point of greatest tension or a turning point) and if there is, what is it? What is the theme of the story?
Finally: Is there anything you would like to revise in the first impression of the story that you wrote down and in your initial response to it? Have you changed your opinion of the story?