In her short work of prose The Story of an Hour
Kate Chopin exhibits a different perspective on the realism
movement that followed Transcendentalism
in American literature. While most works concerned themselves with satisfying the public thirst for tales of the frontier
and shying away from what was felt to be the growing stilted nature of romantic
literature, her story had an altogether different purpose. Kate Chopin
applies the clarifying insturment of realism to general conceptions of marriage
, showing that the stereotypical blissful existance of matrimony
is not all that it seems.
The most noticable way in which she depicts this is through irony. There are two types employed in the story. One is the situational irony of her reaction to the news of her husband's death. While the reader would expect unqualified grief from Mrs. Mallard, instead s/he finds the wife is actually possessed with joy at the news. It is not a Schadenfreude or cruelty, but rather the surprising depiction of Mrs. Mallard's unwanted subservience which creates the situational irony. This may not seem so unexpected in these modern times, but in the time of Chopin it would have been a very great irony indeed. The other important element of irony is the dramatic sort found at the end of the story. While everyone seems to think that Mrs. Mallard's heart was overcome by the joy of her husband's metaphorical resurrection, the reader knows that what in fact killed Mrs. Mallard was not joy, but sadness. The sadness of returning to a life of being bound to her husband and his fate is too leveling for the poor woman to handle. Both of these ironic uses help achieve Chopin's goal of realism by depicting a relationship as it more truly is. Instead of blissful and conflict-free, we find that Mrs. Mallard is trapped in a muddled, confused state of emotions. She grieves for her husband, yet finds freedom and happiness in his death. Things are far more layered with shades of grey than first glance might reveal.
The conclusion to which Chopin brings her story is also important. Mrs. Mallard's death is a vital aspect of the communication of Chopin's theme, without it the realism and representationalism of the situation is ruined. Mrs. Mallard goes through an epiphany, she realizes what a burden has been lifted from her in her husband's death. Her soul is sent souring by the new freedom to which she can look forward in absence of the obligation towards her husband. Epiphanies are not reversible. Once she has made the realization, there is no turning back. Were she to return to her previous state of life upon the discovery of her husband's survival, the impact of Chopin's theme would have been severly dampened. Likewise, allowing for an easy change and a happy ending would have broken with the realism of the situation, Mrs. Mallard would have been expected to fulfill her allotted role in the society of the time. The most effective method was to make use of Mrs. Mallard's heart condition to bring the story to a believable, and communicative end.