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Kayode Faniyi
Dr. Solomon Azumurana
ENG 894
The Joy That Killed: Explicating Feminist Concepts with Kate Chopins The Story of
an Hour
1. Introduction
For all its incoherence, feminism as combative counter-ideology and critical-theoretical
framework can claim as a target an overarching foe: patriarchy and the social, cultural,
economic and psychological systems of its perpetuation. Afterwards, this unison degenerates
like many other political critical frameworks reallyinto a cacophony characterised by
different viewpoints and specific local experiences of patriarchy. Patriarchy, being a
suffocating system of beliefs that place the man ahead of the woman with historical and
contemporaneous hegemonic consequences in the social, cultural, economic and
psychological spheres (Tyson 85).
Modern feminist literary criticism is universally acknowledged to have originated from
Virginia Woolfs A Room of Ones Own (Mikics 118; Childs & Fowler 88; Tyson 93; Plain &
Sellers 2, 9). As for what might constitute non-modern feminist criticism however, Carolyn
Dinshaws Medieval feminist criticism and Helen Wilcoxs Feminist criticism in the
Renaissance and seventeenth century present inroads, although it might be interesting to
note this scarcely acknowledged passage from John Drydens An Essay in Dramatic Poesy:
As for the poor honest Maid, on whom all the Story is built, and who ought to be one
of the principal actors in the play, she is commonly a mute in it; she has the breeding

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of the old Elizabeth way, which was for maids to be seen, and not to be heard; and it
is enough you know she is willing to be married, when the fifth act requires it (322)
Which might have as well issued straight out of Woolfs pen.
The feminist program consists of reacting and asserting, against patriarchy, although it can be
argued that asserting is a species of reactinga somewhat proactive reaction (Tyson 92).
Feminism rejects the idea of a male norm, a transcendent pole of address, essential subjects
(Tyson 96) against which women are seen as secondary and derivative (Dobbie 100), and
2. Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin is no stranger to the annals of feminist criticism (Tyson 90; Dobbie 101). Her
novel, The Awakening, published in 1899 and thrust upon the scrapheap adjunct to a so-called
universal literature, found retrospective critical and commercial success in the 1960s owing
to the flowering of feminism (Childs & Fowler 2) and the novels rehearsal of the familiar
tropes of feminismthe strife to define female experience, to expose the patriarchy and to
rescue the woman from absolute otherness.
3. A Feminist Critique of The Story of an Hour
Her short story, The Story of an Hour was published in 1894. It is what one might describe
as a feminist text, a gynocentric text, seeing as it interrogates human experience from the
female perspective, and makes the womans experience a referent.
To sum up the storys plot, Chopins protagonist, Louise Mallard, already afflicted with heart
trouble, dies after the husbandBrently Mallardwho had been reported to her as dead from
an accident turns up alive. This death, when the doctors came, was described as resulting

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from a joy that kills (12), an overwhelming joy that overworks a fragile heart. But was it
joy that killed Louise Mallard?
Whether these doctors were male or female is beside the point. Patriarchy, after all, is no
respecter of sex. But that the doctors would make this kind of blanket assumption results
from the patriarchys expectations of a woman in that situation, the social construction of her
response. An assumption, as we will find out, not borne out upon the evidence of the
interiority of Louise Mallard which Chopin shields from other characters in the story.
Subjected to the patriarchal gaze however, Louise becomes a doubly fragile woman who
cannot handle the spectre of her husbands survival.
When the story opens, Chopin refers to the protagonist as Mrs Mallard, rehearsing the
propensity of patriarchy to define the woman, not in terms of her own subjectivity but by
marriage, which of course, is designed to be oriented towards the man. Later we learn that
Mrs Mallard is indeed Louise (11), after her sisterwho, although is married, is introduced
as Josephine and never referred to as Mrs anyonebeseechs her to open the door beyond
which (Louise) goes on to lock herself upon the receipt of the news of her husbands death.
Josephine was kneeling before the closed door with her lips to the keyhole, imploring
for admission. Louise, open the door! I beg; open the door you will make yourself
ill. What are you doing, Louise? For heavens sake open the door. (12)
This episode is instructive, and shows the complexity of Chopins brief narrative. Hysteria
overemotional, extremely irrational behaviour defined as a female problem (Tyson 85-6)is
what Josephine expects of a woman confronted by such a situation as her husbands death,
not stoic forbearance, which might be expected of rational man. To forestall this outcome in
the extreme[Richards] had only taken the time to assure himself of its truth by a second
telegram, and had hastened to forestall any less careful, less tender friend in bearing the sad

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message, given Louise Mallards heart trouble, it is Josephine, Richards wife, in literal and
symbolic sisterhood, who breaks the news of her husbands death to her, as gently as
possible, in broken sentences; veiled hints that revealed in half concealing (10) as opposed
to the full disclosure of a complete sentence. Which recalls, again, the exclusion of women
from certain roles based on biological essentialism, a belief in an innate biologicallydetermined incapability of women for science, or more appropriately, rationality (Tyson 85).
Of course, we know now that this belief did not result from any implicit, organic or genetic
incapability of the woman for science, or rationality, as it were, but from social
constructionism, an ex post facto assignment of gender roles based on patriarchal
assumptions (86), and done for the perpetuation of these assumptions.
Contrary to Josephines expectations, Louise is not making herself ill behind that door.
Rather, she was drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window (11).
Josephines characterisation is that of a patriarchal woman. By patriarchal woman, [Tyson]
mean[s], of course, a woman who has internalized the norms and values of patriarchy (85).
First she breaks the news to Louise incoherently, and then expects that Louises locking the
door was to harm herself.
Louises characterisation, in contrast, defies the qualities inscribed in the category woman
by patriarchy. Chopin leaves suggestive markers as to how she intends for Louise to be
apprehended. Louise is capable of intelligent thought (11), a clear and exalted perception
(11), and illumination (12), all undermining biological essentialism. Juxtaposing Louise
and Josephine, we can see how the gender roles man and woman are socially
constructed. Louise does not conform to the category woman, undermining, again, the
notion false dichotomies of biological essentialism.

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The madonna (angel) and whore (demon) roles correspond accordingly to the degree of a
womans conformity with patriarchal expectations (Tyson 89). Louise understands what is
expected of her, understands what she will thought of if she does not conform, and thus needs
to retreat behind a doorretreat from societyto revel in this potential for self-assertion.
However, patriarchy does not telegraph Louises reaction, not completely. She grieved, as
anyone might, but beneath the grief is a significance she is alive to, a significance to be
discussed shortly.
She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed
inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment,
in her sisters arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her
room alone. She would have no one follow her. (11)
She wept in her sisters arms, and then defied this sisterhood in a symbolic gesture of selfassertion.
Chopins story is very much alive to nuance. Where she might have simply said women,
the qualifier many materialises. This, coupled with Louises insistence on a private struggle
telegraphs the splintering of the feminist front presented by the white female into the
particularities of the experience of economically and separately, racially oppressed women.
Louises self-assertion requires alienation, seeing as this deficient sisterhoodthe sisterhood
of a patriarchal woman and one who recognizes her oppressionwas simply a reprisal of
patriarchal expectations. In fact, when Louise later gets up to open the door, Chopin describes
her as opening the door to her sisters importunities (12).
In that room, she sank into a comfortable, roomy chair before an open window, pressed
down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul (11).
Through this window, possibilities to unleash the repressed.

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She was young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a
certain strength. (11)
Having been silent, i.e. having previously taken identification from the external authority of
patriarchy (Dobbie 103), of marriage, having being mentally and physically exhausted of it
all, something begins to come to her, something she waited for, fearfully. This coming thing
had already been foreshadowed by the imagesocular, olfactory and auditoryChopin
renders through Louise as she sits before the open window:
She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all
aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air and
countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves. (11)
Still the thing approached:
her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing that
was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will as
powerless as her two white slender hands would have been. (11)
And finally,
When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips.
She said it over and over under her breath: free, free, free! The vacant stare and the
look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright.
Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her
How come a woman who (sometimes) loved her husband, a kind and tender man, who had
never looked save with love upon her (11), how come she reacts to his death with
monstrous joy, whispering Free! Body and soul free! (11)? Is it the man who has died,

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or does the man symbolise something greater than himself? It is because, love, the unsolved
mystery does not count for much in the face of the self-assertion with which she is now
possessed (11):
There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for
herself. There would be no 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. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a
crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination. (12) (emphases
This powerful will to which she would notgiven the evidencehave been totally
receptive of is really patriarchy, however malevolent or benevolent. Marriage, and by
extension, the family, is genderedsignify[ing] outcomes that are socially constructed and
give males advantages over females. They describe the production of assumptions about
gender as well as the institutions that are shaped by those assumptions (Reskin & Padavic 6)
and thus the framework through which she critiques the gender ordera patterned system
of ideological and material practices, performed by individuals in a society, through which
power relations between women and men are made, and remade, as meaningful (Pilcher &
Wheleman 61)of patriarchy, which has supplied the notional anchors of marriage in that
society. Marriage is implicated in the notion of sexage which occurs in
the appropriation of womens time, (2) the appropriation of the products of womens
bodies. (3) womens sexual obligation, and (4) womens obligation to care for
whichever members of the family cant care for themselves as well as for healthy
male family members. (Tyson 99)
Tyson continues:

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As Guillaumin observes, [] the marriage contract puts no limits on the time wives
(and any other women living in the family, (such as daughters, aunts, and
grandmothers) will have to work and specifies no holidays on which they wont have
to work... Womens sexual obligation to men occurs both in marriage and in
prostitution. (99)
Marriage, the family and by implication, patriarchy, have stifled Louises freedom and the
assertion of her self, and she revels in the prospect of freedom.
And having providentially escaped the suffocating embrace of marriage, she emerges from
the room carrying herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory (Chopin 12), a feverish
triumph in her eyes (12).
In her book, Backlash, Susan Faludi, an American journalist advances the concept of
backlash, that is, according to Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan (3).
Backlash literally means the jarring of a wheel, or other part of machinery, which is
not properly in alignment. Figuratively, it is a term that has come to mean a strong
reaction against a system or state of affairs that had been changed. (3)
According to Faludis own characterisation,
at once sophisticated and banal, deceptively progressive and proudly backward. It
deploys both the new findings of scientific research and the sentimental
moralizing of yesteryear; it turns into media sound bites both the glib pronouncements
of pop-psych trend-watchers and the frenzied rhetoric of New Right preachers.
(Faludi 16 qtd in Pilcher & Whelehan 4)
But Pitcher & Whelehans birds eye view of the concept will be sufficient for our purpose
here, because it unhinges the concept from Faludis very particular moorings, which, as

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Pitcher & Wheleman show, can be problematic as it might be used to assail contrary
feminisms as well (5). However, the following quote serves to further line up the concept in
the specific sense in which I am going to use it:
[B]acklash is not a conspiracy, with a council dispatching agents from some central
control room, nor are the people who serve its ends often aware of their role; some
even consider themselves feminists (Faludi 12 qtd in Pitcher & Wheleman 4)
This concept of backlash is crucial to parsing Louise Mallards death. Here is how Chopin
plays this death out:
Some one was opening the front door with a latchkey. It was Brently Mallard who
entered, a little travel-stained, composedly carrying his grip-sack and umbrella. He
had been far from the scene of the accident, and did not even know there had been
one. He stood amazed at Josephine's piercing cry; at Richards' quick motion to screen
him from the view of his wife.
When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease--of the joy that
kills. (12)
When Louise Mallard learns of her husbands death, the status quo had changed, and she was
triumphant. Her husbands providential (re)appearance is a symbolic backlash (which is nonconspiratorial as well, given the husbands bona fides and the nature of the appearance), a
strong reaction against this change. The status quo had been abruptly reinstituted. Since we
cannot untangle her heart condition from her resultant death (this is why Richards attempts to
shield Louise from her husbands view), this death is best rendered in symbolic terms: as the
(re)quashing of an emergent self.
Is Louises death analogous to the nihilist surrender of Ralph Ellisons Invisible Man? Is
patriarchy hermetically sealed? Is resistance futile? My argument would be no. That Chopin

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successfully exhibits the subversive potential of Louises interiority is subversion enough. In
this story at least.
4. Works Cited
Childs, Peter and Roger Fowler. The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms, 3rd ed., New
York, 2006.
Chopin, Kate. The Story of an Hour. The Bedford Introduction to Literature, edited by
Michael Meyer, Boston, 1999, pp. 10-12.
Dinshaw, Carolyn. Medieval feminist criticism. A History of Feminist Literary Criticism,
edited by Gill Plain and Susan Sellers. Cambridge Press, 2007, pp. 11-26
Gill Plain. Introduction to Part I. Plain and Sellers, pp. 6-10.
Dobbie, Ann B. Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. Thomson, 2002.
Dryden, John. An Essay of Dramatic Poesy. Dramatic Theory and Criticism: From Greeks
to Grotowski, edited by Bernard E. Dukore. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College, 1974, pp.
Mikics, David. A New Handbook of Literary Terms. Yale University Press, 2007.
Pilcher, Jane and Imelda Whelehan. Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies. Sage Publications,
Plain, Gill and Susan Sellers, editors. A History of Feminist Literary Criticism. Cambridge
Press, 2007.
Plain and Sellers. Introduction. Plain and Sellers, pp, 1-3.
Reskin, B. and I. Padavic. Women and Men at Work. Pine Forge Press, 1994.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006.

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Wilcox, Helen. Feminist criticism in the Renaissance and seventeenth century. Plain and
Sellers, pp. 27-45.