Ironies of Life in Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"
Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"--which takes only a few minutes to read--has an ironic ending: Mrs. Mallard dies just when she is beginning to live. On first reading, the ending seems almost too ironic for belief. On rereading the story, however, one sees that the ending is believable partly because it is consistent with the other ironies in the story.
After we know how the story turns out, if we reread it, we find irony at the very start. Because Mrs. Mallard's friends and her sister assume, mistakenly, that she is deeply in love with her husband, Brently Mallard, they take great care to tell her gently of his death. They mean well, and in fact they do well, bringing her an hour of life, and hour of joyous freedom, but it is ironic that they think their news is sad. True, Mrs. Mallard at first expresses grief when she hears the news, but soon she finds joy. So Richards's "sad message" (12), though sad in Richards's eyes, is in fact a happy message.
Among the small but significant ironic details is the statement near the end of the story that when Mallard enters the house, Richards tries to conceal him from Mrs. Mallard, but is "too late" (13). Almost at the start of the story, in the second paragraph, Richards "hastened" (12) to bring his sad news. But if Richards had arrived "too late" at the start, Brently Mallard would have arrived at home first, and Mrs. Mallard's life would not have ended an hour later but would simply have gone on as it had been. Yet another irony at the end of the story is the diagnosis of the doctors. They say she died of "heart disease--of joy that kills" (11). In one sense they are right: Mrs. Mallard has for the last hour experienced a great joy. But of course the doctors totally misunderstand the joy that kills her. It is not joy at seeing her husband alive, but her realization that the great joy she experienced during the last hour is over.
All of these ironic details add richness to the story, but the central irony resides not in the well-intentioned but ironic actions of Richards, or in the unconsciously ironic words of the doctors, but in Mrs. Mallard's own life. She "sometimes" (13) loved her husband, but in a way she has been dead, a body subjected to her husband's will. Now his apparent death brings her new life. Appropriately this new life comes to her at the season of the year when "the tops of trees [...] were all aquiver with the new spring life" (12). But ironically, her new life will last only an hour. She is "Free, free, free" (12), but only until her husband walks through the doorway. She looks forward to "summer days" (13), but she will not see even the end of this spring day. If her years of marriage were ironic, bringing her a sort of living death instead of joy, her new life is ironic too, not only because it grows out of her moment of grief for her supposedly dead husband, but also because her vision of "a long procession of years" (12) is cut short within an hour on a spring day.