Study Guide
to
Kate Chopin's "Story of an Hour"

efore reading the story, you might wish to know a little more about the author.  Check out one or more of the brief biographies on our course page of links.  If you haven't yet bought our main text for the course, you can print off a copy of "The Story of an Hour" from the Web, as well, from another link on that page.


Plan on reading the story three times before you undertake to write on it.  Devote your first reading just to finding out what happens.  But as you do this, be asking yourself what you find yourself feeling as you discover what transpires. 

Do not read further in this Study Guide until you have completed your first reading of the story.


Before undertaking your second reading, quickly skim back over the whole to notice the shift in setting within the house.  As you carry out your second reading, ask yourself how these shifts are significant:  what shifts in the story do they mark, and make possible?

What is contributed to the story by this feature, in turn?  Why might Chopin not want to forego it?

You've just carried out a couple of thought modest but important "thought experiments":  you carried out, in imagination, an investigation of the form "What would happen if X, which it happens is this way, were some other way, say Y?" The point of asking you to reflect on these questions is to drive home a point that, in some moods, we think of as obvious, but that in others we sometimes lose sight of:  that writing stories (or at least this kind of story) is not a kind of "automatic self-expression," but of design.  In order to get certain things done, writers have to arrange to do other things that make these possible (or at least able to pass as plausible). Or, put the other way round: the Chopin didn't just "happen to" alter the setting in just the way she did. She did it for a purpose. That is, the author's action here was a rational means to an end. (And this end in turn may be functioning as a means to some other end, or a whole bunch of them.)

One further thing before you take up your second reading: carry your memory of the final sentence of the story back to your memory of (or your rereading of) the opening sentence of the story.  Does anything strike you here?

What, incidentally, is the root meaning that you can detect in the term "disease"?

Do you think her family has accurately diagnosed the cause of Mrs. Mallard's death?  (What other possibilities [more than one other, perhaps?] should occur to the reader, on reflection?)

What possibilities occur to us for what might have been the real roots of the "heart trouble" with which Mrs. Mallard has evidently been for some while "afflicted"?  (That is, is it possible that the doctors have misdiagnosed the problem in the first place?  [And if so, what factors may have prevented them from guessing the truth?]}


Now undertake your second reading of the story.  This time try to focus closely on Mrs. Mallard's feelings.  Of course, you won't have missed them altogether the first time through.  But try now to make yourself as precisely aware as you can of the complexity of her feelings. 

But first,  here are the assumptions I am asking you to buy into in putting energy into this inquiry.

Writers who claim our attention in the way that those we are bothering with in this course do, do so because they have conceived of some sort of situation that, for some reason (the issues somehow raised by that situation), they want us to contemplate.  By "to contemplate" here I don't mean just "to think about," if that phrase suggests to you a purely intellectual engagement.  I mean "to think and feel through, and to test our feelings about."  Now the way writers control the sort of situation they put before their readers is by carefully controlling the particular situation they contrive for them to construct in their imagination.  This means that, if we are interested in penetrating to the reason the writer had for presuming to put his or her story in front of us, we are going to have to pay close attention to the exact facts of the particular situation that writer has contrived as the story. [1]

Here, then, are some more thought experiments to carry out on the basis of your second reading:

What exactly are the different forces behind the conflict that you discern in the "repression" spoken of in the first sentence of 8?

The origin of the term "repress" is a concrete metaphor: to "push back."

What is it that is repressed?  How thoroughly has it been repressed?  (How "far" has it been "pressed back"?)

What is it that is doing the repressing?  (How strong is it, and what indicates this?  Where does it get its leverage, its force?  How has it recruited Mrs. Mallard herself as its "agent"?)

Why is it important that Mrs. Mallard be in a state of "physical exhaustion" in the precise moment we find her in that condition in 4?

What has Chopin exploited (what fact has she earlier contrived) to explain Mrs. Mallard's being in this condition at this moment?

Why is the last sentence of 8 important?

How does this situation invite us to introduce the categories "culture" and "nature"? (To which side of the conflict would you assign each of these terms?)

What do you make of the particular facts (and the particular language in which these are conveyed) in 10 and the first sentence of 11?

What kind of situation is the present one implicitly being compared to here?

What is the point of this?

Do not read further in this Study Guide until you have completed your first reading of the story.


In your third reading (which you should not take up immediately upon finishing your second), concentrate on s 5, and 6.

What do the various details that are brought together in 5 serve to suggest, by implication?  That is, what connotations do they have in common?

Why is this important?

Imagine that you were a film director setting out to translate this story into a movie.  What would give you fits, if you were to try to capture on film the relevant facts of 6 into a single shot conveying a visual image?  Could you do this?  (See how this amounts to another thought experiment?)

Or: imagine what would happen if the facts here were, say, something like one or another of these (instead of what Chopin has chosen to have them be):

These imaginable variations serve to throw into relief what is actually present in the story as written.  Is there any appreciable purpose served by the following facts' being as they are?

Does some of this connect up in some way with the implications of the idea of "repression" that you unpacked in the course of your second reading?


Note

If we are interested in penetrating to the reason the writer had for presuming to put his or her story in front of us, we are going to have to pay close attention to the exact facts of the particular situation that writer has contrived as the story.  Otherwise we are interested in imagining our own story, in which case we don't need to bother ourselves with what the writer has bothered to write:  we can get on with the business of constructing our own fantasy.  (Of course, if we were to commit this our fantasy to writing, and to put it in front of readers, we might expect them, too, to try to pay close attention to exactly what we have chosen to make the story be.  And (if we were serious in deciding exactly what we wanted our story to be), we might be disappointed if our readers decided to ignore what we have written, and to get busy cooking up fantasies purely of their own devising, and so on ad infinitum.)  

The reason we don't do this -- when we don't! -- is that we have some reason to believe that the writer is in the end going to present us with a situation that's more interesting to us than what we are convinced we ourselves could come up with, at least on the spur of the moment.    Return.


  Go to the Writing Assignment on this story.

  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to lyman@ksu.edu

  Contents copyright 2000 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

  This page last updated 13 August 2000.