Lesson Learned . . . the Hard Way                                                      
by
Rebekah Shahan

"‘Free! Body and soul free!’", Mrs. Mallard kept whispering. One person’s ultimate freedom may be seen as a tragedy to another. Kate Chopin illustrates this idea in "The Story of an Hour." The story is set in the nineteenth century. Chopin uses the death of Mr. Mallard to show the reader Mrs. Mallard’s deep feelings. In the story, Josephine and Mrs. Mallard are sisters. Although the women come from the same background, live in the same city, and outwardly appear to be satisfied with their lives, their attitudes are very different. Chopin uses these two women as foil characters in the story. The differences in the women are seen in their reactions to Mr. Mallard’s death. Although both women are expected to maintain a certain role in society, Mrs Mallard, unlike Josephine, is not satisfied with her life due to the societal restrictions. At the end of the story, Josephine and Mrs. Mallard respond very differently to Mr. Mallard’s coming home.

Josephine and Mrs. Mallard feel very differently about the societal restrictions placed on them. Josephine is portrayed as the perfect nineteenth-century woman. She fulfills her duty as care-giver. This duty is seen when Josephine is kneeling before Mrs. Mallard’s locked door pleading for admission: "‘Louise, open the door! I beg; open the door–you will make yourself ill,’" Josephine implores. Josephine is concerned about the well-being of her sister. She is present when Mrs. Mallard hears the news of her husband’s death and provides comfort and compassion. On the other hand, Mrs. Mallard feels trapped and burdened by the restriction placed on her by society. Mrs. Mallard longs to be an individual who does not belong to someone else. When alone in her room, Mrs. Mallard says over and over again, "‘free, free, free!’" Through this statement, Mrs. Mallard lets the reader know she feels imprisoned by her life as Mrs. Mallard, Mr. Mallard’s wife. Mrs. Mallard feels stifled and bound by her limited opportunities. Josephine and Mrs. Mallard may be sisters, but they have very different outlooks on a woman’s role in society.

The differences in Josephine and Mrs. Mallard are evident in their reactions to the news of Mr. Mallard’s death. Josephine cannot find a ray of hope in Mr. Mallard’s death. She is overwhelmed with sadness. She is very careful how she tells Mrs. Mallard of her husband’s death. Josephine uses broken sentences and veiled hints when telling Mrs. Mallard of Mr. Mallard’s death. Josephine knows that Mrs. Mallard depends on her husband for everything. However, Mrs. Mallard’s reaction to the news is very different. Mrs. Mallard loves her husband. She is saddened by the news, but she is able to see into the future. She is able to see a future with color and brightness. Mrs. Mallard feels set free from bondage. She no longer sees a world of restrictions but a world of opportunity and adventure. Her husband’s death brings revival to her soul. Chopin says, Mrs. Mallard is "drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window." The news of Mr. Mallard’s death is tragic but brings very different reactions from Josephine and Mrs. Mallard.

At the end of the story, when Mr. Mallard enters his house, Josephine and Mrs. Mallard respond very distinctly. Josephine lets out a "piercing cry." Her response is one of relief and thankfulness. She cannot believe what she sees and is in total shock. Mrs. Mallard also experiences shock when her husband enters. However, it is not the same relief Josephine feels. When Mrs. Mallard sees her husband, the chains of bondage are thrown back onto her. The reviving and refreshing experience she has just had in her room is put out, and she dies. The doctors say that Mrs. Mallard dies "of joy that kills." Actually, her soul cannot handle the oppression after it has felt such freedom. Josephine’s and Mrs. Mallard’s differences are reflected in their reactions to Mr. Mallard’s coming home.

In Kate Chopin’s "The Story of an Hour," Josephine and Mrs. Mallard are foil characters. The behaviors and values of one contrast with the other. Josephine is presented as a content woman in the nineteenth century. Mrs. Mallard is struggling for freedom. The differences in these women are seen in their reactions to Mr. Mallard’s death and return. Chopin uses this story to point out the importance of being an individual and developing oneself.

"Lessons Learned . . . the Hard Way" was written by Rachel Daly, then a junior in Early Childhood Education. This essay was writtten for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 1102 class during the spring of 2001.