To many people, growing up, getting married, and having a family are the end-all and be-all of life. Most fairytales end with the man and the woman getting married and/or riding off into the sunset into what the audience can only imagine to be the house full of kids behind a white picket fence kind of “happily ever after. ” Real life, however, as many people also know, does not always work that way. For some people, having a family and providing for one’s family do not spell happiness but instead, these supposed ideals, represent despair and lifelong imprisonment.
To speak for these few, some authors have deviated from the fairytale norm and have opted instead to write the stories of the trapped and miserable, the stories of their figurative cages and what they want most –escape. One example is Henrik Ibsen whose lead character in A Doll’s House, Nora, runs away from husband and children once she fully realizes her unhappiness. Running away is just a mild form of escape though, and there is one form of that one who has come to truly hate life considers at one point or another; this is death.
Mrs. Mallard from The Story of an Hour and “the mother” from A Sorrowful Woman were two of these completely miserable few, and they had both opted to escape their familial prisons through death, albeit in completely different ways. A Sorrowful Woman tells of a mother, the “Sorrowful Woman,” who had suddenly begun to hate her life and her family. She spirals into depression that borders on a kind of neurosis as she alternates between hating the sight and presence of her husband and child on day and vying for their affection the next.
At the height of her depression, she locks herself up as her family tried to cope without her. In the end, after one last extravagant show of everything she had neglected to do for them (baking, cooking, writing stories and sonnets), she dies. In The Story of an Hour, however, does not immediately revolve around the death of the central character, Mrs. Mallard; rather, the story begins with her receiving news of her husband’s death. She runs and locks herself into a room, overcome with an emotion she could not place.
Suddenly, she realizes this emotion was elation, she was profoundly happy that her husband was dead because she was suddenly free. As she fully accepts this joy and begins to celebrate, her husband walks inside the house, very much alive. At this, as she was already afflicted with heart trouble, she dies. The two stories are fundamentally different, in tone and in the manner of death, the Sorrowful Woman dying little by little while Mrs. Mallard is treated to a full hour of happiness before suddenly dying. They both, however, deal with essentially the same theme.
Both women were trapped in lives that they were fully unhappy in and both, in a way, were oblivious of the extent of their unhappiness. For Mrs. Mallard, she “was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will,” (Chopin) she tried to stop the joy that was rushing at her at the news of her husband’s death. She knew it was there, yet she just did not, or refused to recognize it at first, maybe because it was a “monstrous joy,” although she ignored that thought later (Chopin).
And yet, the title The Story of an Hour is because it was only in that hour that she was fully happy. For the Sorrowful Woman, a few times she also felt ashamed of her animosity of heart towards her family. She had said, “’I am the luckiest woman,’… crying real tears” (Godwin). She does not say, but the reader can infer, that she meant “I am the luckiest woman…so why do I feel this way? ” A few times the woman had apologized to her husband for her behaviour, and every time he had assured her that she was fine, that she was just sick.
And yet, was she sick? Or maybe is just easier to dismiss her feelings as a sickness instead of dealing with the actual problem. As mentioned, both women felt shame, or at least hesitancy in recognizing how they felt about their families. The husband dismissed it as an affliction, while the people around Mrs. Mallard though she was making herself ill with grief and worse yet, when she had the heart attack the doctors said the reason was “joy,” instead of the pure shock and dismay the reader knows it to be (Chopin).
Why would people automatically assume these things? In a way, it comes down to gender roles. The woman is expected to love and care for her family, without complaint. Today, that is still a prevalent “given” in society, what more in the times that these stories were written: feminist movement had not even started in 1894, and it was still having its worst issues in 1971. Not too many people question that the mother is supposed to be an ever-loving entity in the family, and people are just not ready to admit that this might not always be the case.
Even today, if a woman said “I don’t love my children,” she would be condemned; giving the woman a choice in abortion is a very hot topic right now, but that is a whole new issue altogether. Still, the idea that a woman might be unhappy with, or might not even want, a family is still something most people find hard to accept. The Sorrowful Woman, found this hard to accept herself, which explains why she kept trying to reconnect with her family just to push them away again.
Her firing “the girl” can even be considered as the shame she felt at not being able to do those things that the girl was doing for her family anymore, things that she felt she had to do. It should be noted that while her detachment to her family is clear in how her husband is consistently called “the husband” or “the father,” and her son is called “the child,” she still feels like the motherly duties are her own as the kitchen is still referred to as “her kitchen” (Godwin). Mrs. Mallard, on the other hand, laid her shame to rest more easily as “a clear and exalted perception enabled her to dismiss the suggestion as trivial” (Chopin).
This could be because she did not actually have to see her husband to feel the shame, as she did think that “she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death” (Chopin). The Sorrowful Woman, however, did not have this luxury as she saw and heard her child and husband constantly. Thus, running away from how she felt when she saw them can explain why she locked herself away in the room to the point where she would only receive notes. Of course the reader, even knowing the unhappiness of the woman, would sympathize with the emotionally abandoned family; your wife only receiving notes from you seems very cold indeed.
However, could they have done anything about it? The Sorrowful Woman’s husband is described as being “durable, receptive, gentle,” and faultlessly understanding throughout the entire story (Godwin). However, he still dismissed the emotions that haunted her as a sickness and chose to take on her duties, give her sleeping medicine at night, and let her do what she wanted instead of talking to her about her issues upfront. Of course he might have loved her too much to let her go, or was too afraid to learn how she really felt, but how he coddled her appeared to do more harm than good.
For Mrs Mallard, it is a different story; her husband is barely introduced at all. While the Sorrowful Woman confesses to the sight of her husband and child making her “sad and sick” (Godwin), Mrs. Mallard’s feelings for her husband were less violent, she thought that “she had loved him–sometimes. Often she had not” (Chopin). She was too intoxicated with the idea of freedom to think about her supposedly dead husband, even though she admitted that he had “never looked save with love upon her” (Chopin).
She even went to the point of justifying her disloyalty by thinking that he had a “powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature” (Chopin). Though Mrs. Mallard is described as slightly “repressed” and the Sorrowful Woman is by definition sorrowful, from the title, and described as “a wife and mother one too many times” (Godwin), the full reasons behind why they were unhappy were not really discussed.
The just were. Maybe they had fallen out of love, maybe they had bigger plans for their lives, the reader can only guess. The point is, though, that the exact reasons why did not matter, just that they were miserable. They had repressed these feelings out of duty, shame, and all those other reasons, and this had ended tragically for both of them. The stories show that one must come to terms with one’s feelings, no matter how disturbing, before they destroy you.