I recently did a recording on YouTube of the Kate Chopin short story, The Story of an Hour.
It’s a very short story, more flash fiction: it’s a thousand and thirteen words long and took my just short of eight minutes to read out.
The Story of an Hour was originally published in 1894 in Vogue magazine, though its title at that time was The Dream of an Hour.
The Story of an Hour shows how our life is completely transformed by seeing things from different perspectives. That is true both of the heroine, who dies, but also for us, the readers (or listeners) in this masterful tale with multiple twists.
The first emotional charge is not a twist as such, because it is the first incident so there’s nothing to twist it from. But it is the inciting incident, very laden with emotion that leads us on and sets us up for Chopin to twist our expectations so successfully later.
This emotional charge is dropped when we learn that Mr Bently Mallard is dead and that his young wife, Louise – who has a heart condition – is now a widow.
So far, so normal. This is a fairly standard opening incident for a short story. Things have suddenly, unexpectedly changed for the worse.
But because the opening is standard, we are conditioned to expect a standard response and Kate Chopin leads is into this well.
Our expectation is that a young widow would be devastated. True to this expectation, young Louise Mallard cries and locks herself alone in her room, ostensibly, and apparently genuinely at this point, out of grief. That is what her sister and Mr Richards believe. They want to protect her from a sudden shock because of her weak heart.
The information about the weak heart is is a set up for the ending.
So far, so good. We are foreshadowed and wallowing in our expectations, then comes the first twist.
Twist Number One
Just short of three minutes into the story, we have her crying herself to silence, sitting waiting for some unknown fear.
We expect that the fear is of widowhood at such a young age – of being alone without a man to look after her. This last expectation would be even more expected when the story was published in 1894.
But Kate Chopin was one of these ‘new women’ – I’m just reading Dracula, published in 1897, and Stoker goes on about these new women with their ‘modern ideas’ of independence, and I’m not sure he approves of them.
Even so, as Mrs Mallard begins to have an intuition about what her fear is, she tries to beat it back.
But at last, at 3 minutes and 52 seconds into my reading, she says it: ‘Free!”. That’s what she was frightened of – her freedom.
“Free! Body and soul free!” she kept whispering.
She is free of the man who loved her, but whose love, as for most women of her class and position, enslaved her.
By 4 minutes and 2 seconds, she has reconciled herself and is no longer scared of her freedom.
The first twist then, is that she is not heartbroken to be a widow, but joyful.
Twist Number Two
We are told that Mr Mallard only loved his wife. Then it turns out that she did not really love him — perhaps she loved him sometimes, but mostly not.
And yet she had loved him — sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter! What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!
Now, in most stories this would be enough to brand her a heartless cow and the reader would lose all sympathy for her, but we don’t. We empathise and root for her in her new freedom.
We root for her, despite the fact her freedom was won through her husband’s life being cut short and despite the fact that she never returned his devoted affection.
Some trick that for a writer.
We learn later that Louise Mallard had wished her life was short because marriage made her so miserable. Now she wishes for a long life.
Marriage made her miserable. Chopin manages to convey this in a way we never doubt but to do that even when the husband is not portrayed as a brute, even when he is portrayed as a good man.
It would have been fairly standard to portray the jailer husband as a drinking, womanizing, violent, beast, but he isn’t. He’s basically a decent man.
A decent man, but a husband and therefore her captor.
Louise begins to revel in the imagined years of freedom.
Her fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her. Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long
This is a further foreshadowing, which will be twisted. We buy this dream of the brighter future and have it snatched away — a nice bait and switch by Chopin.
The Third Twist
At 5 minutes and 52 seconds, she realises that freedom is far more important than love. This is what the story is about.
At this time, when Louise Mallard is imagining and rejoicing in her free future, her sister is outside the door, taking our part, imagining that Louise is broken with grief, as would be correct and proper.
At 6 minutes and 54 seconds, Louise Mallard carries herself as a goddess of victory.
At 7 minutes and 4 seconds, someone is opening the front door. This is an example of prolepsis where a pronoun is used before the character is introduced, which is a device for creating suspense. It creates an ‘open loop’ in our minds. We wonder: who is this someone? and tension arises because that question has been planted in us.
He has a latch key. That must mean he is known and trusted by the household. We begin to suspect…
At 7 minutes and 8 seconds, Brently Mallard enters, unexpectedly alive. Another twist, and a big one.
We imagine the scene: the bemused Brently who has no idea what is going on in his house. The sister shrieking. His friend Richards, hiding him from his wife.
Because Richards knows, even if we have forgotten, that Louise Mallard has a bad heart and that a shock could kill her. And it does,
At 7 minutes and 33 seconds Louise Mallard is dead.
The Final Twist
The final twist then is that Louise Mallard does die of shock as they had all feared, but it is not at the shock of her husband being killed, it is at the disappointment that he is still alive.
When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease — of joy that kills.
But it wasn’t joy; it was misery that her husband still lived.
And all this in 7 minutes and 42 seconds. Not bad.
So there is one initial shock to set us on the emotional roller coaster: that Brently is suddenly killed. The first twist is that she rejoices in his death. The second twist is that he isn’t dead, and the final twist is that her death comes from shock, as we might have expected, but it’s the opposite kind of shock that we were set up to expect.
It works so well because the final twist is well foreshadowed. She already alerted us to the weak heart right at the beginning. If Kate Chopin had revealed at the end that Louise had a weak heart, there would not be a plot hole, that is, the end would be perfectly logical. We would have said, “Ah, well, what a pity.” But because of the foreshadowing, and the deft touch where Richards realises what is going to happen before we do (unless we were very quick), instead of “Oh!” We end up saying “Aha!”
And “Ahas” are always better than “Ohs.”