HOW TO READ LIKE A FEMINIST

In Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”, the protagonist, Louise Mallard dies after learning that her husband, whom she’d been told had died in an accident, resurfaced at their front door, very undead. The story, we’re told, was remarkable (read: controversial) for its time, not merely because of its female protagonist but because she quite obviously luxuriates in her new-found, unattached freedom. While such a turn of events would not surprise us in contemporary times, the material substance of Louise’s death has proved a more durable controversy.
Her death is complicated by the fact that we’re told her heart is rendered fragile by heart disease. In breaking the news of her husband’s death, Richard, husband to Louise’s sister, goes great lengths in ensuring that the unpalatable is smothered in the palatable, that it is his wife, above anyone else, who must do the informing, “in broken sentences; veiled hints that revealed in half concealing.” All this to avoid startling a fragile heart.
We can safely assume that the state of her heart contributes to her collapse and death. But these stories are not remarkable merely for the surface meaning of the events in them. And really, what can be so fatally startling in learning that one’s husband, supposedly dead, has only been the unwitting victim of fake news?
We know that Louise experiences a perverse joy over the death of her husband. For her, the death signifies too much. We know that the good doctors are blissfully oblivious of the thoughts so palpably dramatized before us, the readers. To us then, the joy that kills acquires much more meaning than would ever occur to the doctors. To the doctors, a weak-hearted woman has simply been overwhelmed with the great joy of her husband’s reappearance. Par for the course.
Is her death some sort of cosmic punishment for her perverse, verboten joy, ergo, a “joy” that should kill? First, perversity here is relative to its observer: Louise feels smothered by her husband’s unflinching love, feels that she cannot aspire to the full potential of her existence with such a loving but brooding presence looming over her, clipping the wings she wants to extend. She is obviously thoroughly bored, ironically, by the constancy of Mr Mallard’s love, and everyone knows a woman loves her excitement, even if occasional. Louise wants to experience the rough and tumble of life; by his very existence in his particular social milieu, Mr Mallard shields her from slaking an existential thirst.
It is a stroke of good luck then that Mr Mallard is dead, a stroke of good luck Louise is exceedingly grateful for, joyous over. Mr Mallard’s reappearance can only then represent a powerful reaffirmation of her powerlessness.
If you’re familiar with Chopin’s story and the responses to it, all of the above is perhaps rehashing the familiar. But, wait.
Enter Susan Faludi.
In her book Backlash, Susan Faludi, an American journalist, advances the concept of “backlash.” But it isn’t Susan Faludi who is alive to the full implication of backlash. That role is reserved for Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan, whose bird’s eye view of the concept in Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies unhinges it from Faludi’s very particular moorings , which, as the duo show, can be problematic as it might be used for the ironic task of assailing not only the patriarchy but also contrary feminisms.
Figuratively, it [backlash] is a term that has come to mean a strong reaction against a system or state of affairs that had been changed.
Backlash is not always conscious, “nor are the people who serve its ends often aware of their role.” This immediate clarification is key because it helps us humanize Brently Mallard. He is a near-perfect husband, by Louise’s admission, who is unaware of the role he is playing in stifling Louise’s sense of freedom.
When Louise Mallard learns of her husband’s death, a status quo had changed, which explains her “perverse” joy. Her husband’s providential (re)appearance is a symbolic backlash, a strong reaction against this change. It is a powerful, abrupt reaffirmation of Louise’s powerlessness, a symbolic re(quashing) of an emergent self. What, then, is this life?
P.S: You can read the short story here. (It’s a proper short.) For a fuller academic discussion of “The Story of an Hour,” look here.
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