Patriarchal Society and the Feminine Self in Kate Chopin's Story of an Hour

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Patriarchal Society and the Erasure of the Feminine Self in The Story of an Hour

Critical readings of Chopin’s works often note the tension between female characters and the society that surrounds them. Margaret Bauer suggests that Chopin is concerned with exploring the “dynamic interrelation between women and men, women and patriarchy, even women and women” (146). Often, critics focus on the importance of conflict in these works and the way in which Chopin uses gender constraints on two levels, to open an avenue for the discussion of feminine identity and, at the same time, to critique the patriarchal society that denies that identity. Kay Butler suggests that “entrapment, not freedom, is the source of Chopin’s
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“The Story of an Hour” describes the journey of Mrs. Mallard against the Cult of True Womanhood as she slowly becomes aware of her own desires and thus of a feminine self that has long been suppressed. While this journey begins with the news of her husband’s death, Mr. Mallard’s unexpected return at the very end of the tale tragically cuts short the journey towards feminine selfhood. Yet the tale is tragic from beginning to end, for the very attempt to create an identity against the gender constraints of patriarchal society is riddled with a sense that such an attempt can only end in defeat. “The Story of an Hour” demonstrates that the patriarchal society that defines gender roles which control and delimit women’s experiences deny them a self founded on true feminine desires. Ultimately, Mrs. Mallard’s journey towards selfhood only serves to reveal the erasure of identity, indeed of being, that women experienced in the nineteenth century.

Through symbolically and ironically suggesting that gender definitions delimit the feminine self, the opening of “The Story of an Hour” hints of the tragedy that pervades the tale. Because of Mrs. Mallard’s “heart trouble,” her sister and her husband’s friend rush to her side to break the news of her husband’s death in a gentle manner (644). On a literal level, Louise Mallard’s condition suggests that she has a congenital
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