The short story "The Story of an Hour" was written and published by Kate Chopin in 1894, and is among Chopin's most famous works. It is a depiction of a woman's reaction to bad news, her actions revealing her true thoughts and emotions. Here a structuralist view is provided as the woman is able to see positive in the negative.
"The Story of an Hour" begins with the reader receiving the news of Brently Mallard's death. His friend, Richards, takes great care in delivering the news to Mallard's wife, Louisa, who is afflicted with a heart disease. Mrs Mallard's sister, Josephine, breaks the news to her.
Louisa weeps upon hearing of Brently's death, and goes to her room for privacy. As she sits there alone, she notices her surroundings and tries to make sense of her emotions. At last, she utters the words "free" and recognises the fact that she no longer has to live for someone else, but that she is now able to live only for herself.
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Josephine kneels on the other side of the bedroom door and pleads Louisa to come out. She eventually does and together they go downstairs. As they are descending the stairs, there is a key in the front door and in walks Brently Mallard, alive and well. Louisa dies, according to doctors, of a heart disease.
In Roland Barthes' book S/Z, the author uses a method of analysing a short story. This method involves a series of codes that are used to understand the subliminal messages and meanings of the work. These codes are; the proairetic, the hermeneutic, the cultural, the semic, and the symbolic code.
Barthes' codes can be used to analyse Chopin's short story, beginning with the proairetic code which centers on actions in the story, or the plot. In these two sentences, the proairetic code refers to her weeping and then going to her room.
"She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone." (lines 10-12)
The hermeneutic code deals with the uncertain and unknown, as it imposes questions that do not necessarily have to be answered. This is used to create suspense in the story.
"The notes of a distant song which some one was singing
reached her faintly," (lines 18-19)
Here, the questions 'Who is singing?' and 'Why is this singing so important to our character?' can be cast forth. This provides a deeper understanding of the character Louise who is the one that notices the singing. This is a meaningful moment in an otherwise bleak moment in her life. If she were overcome with grief, from the news of Brently's death, the author would not give this singing any attention. But instead it is made important, in order to show Louise's true feelings as she begins to accept them. XX
The third code is the cultural code, and it is used to bring knowledge to the reader by referring to something previously known, knowledge that belongs to the world outside of the text. This element is portrayed, for example, in the fact the Louise "was afflicted with heart trouble," (line 1), assuming that the reader already knows what "heart trouble" includes and that it can be fatal. This is crucial in understanding the plot of the story and explains why Richards and Josephine take great care delivering the news. This appears again when Louise descends the stairs with her sister and is said to carry herself "unwittingly like a goddess of Victory," (line 67-68) this means that author expects the reader to know what a goddess of Victory looks like. Here Chopin's reference to a goddess means that Louise looks strong, fierce and composed. Through this the author shows that even though Louise Mallard has a weak and frail body, she is strong in spirit, which is not seen by other characters of the story, who do not seem to know her too closely.
Information that the reader receives indirectly is approached through the semic code. It deals with character traits that are shown rather than told to the reader. When Josephine is informing Louise of what has happened, the way Josephine acts informs the reader that she cares about her sister.
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"It was her sister Josephine who told her, in broken sentences;
veiled hints that revealed in half concealing." (lines 3-4)
It is also apparent that Richards, Brenly's good friend, cares for Louise's health as he confirms the death by waiting for a second telegram. He is then present when Josephine brings her the news and also tries to shield Louise from seeing Brently, at the end of the story, when he walks through the door. Through his actions, his feelings towards her are shown.
"Her husband's friend Richards was there, too, near her." (line 4)
The last of the five codes is the symbolic code, which deals with opposites found in the text, linking with the theme of the story. This specific short story addresses the theme of life and death, as one life ends, that of Brently, the life of Louise seems to be finally beginning as she is "Free! Body and soul free!" (line 56). She no longer feels that she has to live to please someone, now that Brently is gone she can start pleasing herself. This is shown in the first words she utters after receiving the news: "She said it over and over under her breath: "free, free, free!"" (lines 37-38). When this new found freedom is taken away from her, at the very end of the story, she dies "of the joy that kills" (lines 76-77). This ties in with the theme, but still provides opposite meaning as joy is counted as a positive thing, but death as a negative element. This echos the main plot of the story as most consider death to be an unpleasant event, Louise, however, sees opportunity in her situation and celebrates what this event may bring her.
These elements all come together and enable us to see into the life and mind of Mrs Louise Mallard. Her reaction may not be considered typical for a woman who has just lost her husband, but we are provided with evidence that her marriage was not fulfilling on her part and that she felt nothing specific for Mr Mallard. This information is provided to the reader through a series of symbols and insinuations that can be connected, creating a pattern.