Mrs. Mallard is a woman whose freedom is being suppressed by her marriage. The story begins with the narrator explaining how it was assumed that great care had to be taken when informing her of her husband’s death, as she suffers from “heart troubles”. These “heart troubles” are symbolic of Mrs. Mallard’s stifled freedom in her marriage. Upon being informed about her husband’s death, she rushes to her room to hide her sudden joy – ironically in her sister Josephine’s mind to mourn her loss. Reflecting upon her husband’s death, Mrs. Mallard experiences a new found sense of freedom: “She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air.”
The narrator uses irony to draw out the fact that Mrs. Mallard is, in fact, overjoyed at her new freedom. Her sister Josephine is under the impression that her “heart troubles” need to be taken into account when informing her of her husband’s death so that the shock of sudden grief won’t kill her, when in fact Mrs. Mallard’s “heart troubles” are actually cured upon hearing the news. Josephine believes Mrs. Mallard is crying in her room: “Josephine was kneeling before the closed door with her lips to the keyhole, imploring for admission. “Louise, open the door! I beg you; open the door – you will make yourself ill.”
When Mrs. Mallard is alone in her room, she begins reflecting on the ramifications of her husband’s death, and experiences an overwhelming relief at the fact that she is now finally free: “When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: ‘Free, free, free!’ The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.” She is renewed, rejuvenated with unanticipated vitality.
Furthermore, this new sense of freedom is so overwhelming that she does not even “stop to ask if it were not a monstrous joy that held her. A clear and exalted perception enabled her to dismiss the suggestion as trivial.” (81) Mrs. Mallard’s desire for freedom was suppressed by a marriage where the patriarchal male dominates; upon realizing about her freedom from that oppression, she relishes her sudden autonomy: “There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending her in that blind persistence with which men and women believed they had a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.”
Mrs. Mallard possesses an intrinsic desire for freedom, which was being snuffed out like a candle in the wind by her marriage. This intrinsic desire for freedom was an essential part of Mrs. Mallard; this is obvious when she says, “Free! Body and soul free!” at the idea of her marriage being over. Her soul – who she is as a person – is now free to seek true fulfillment.
As Mrs. Mallard reflects further on her potential self-actualization, she realizes she now has a new future to look forward to: “Her fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her. Spring days, summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own.” (81) The fact that an innate desire for freedom is an essential part of her person is shown by the passage that immediately follows: “She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.” It is obvious that if an innate desire of a human is suppressed, as is Mrs. Mallard’s desire for freedom, the desire for life will be suppressed as well. So, when Mrs. Mallard realizes that only yesterday – when her husband was still alive – she shuddered at the idea of life being long, she finds herself suddenly wanting to live. Her life had appeared to be a continuation of a marriage she did not want, one which kept her from obtaining the one thing she most desired, namely, freedom.
When Mrs. Mallard finally comes out of her room, “There was a feverish triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory.” As she descends the stairs, she sees her husband’s friend Richards standing there. Then her husband walks in the door unharmed, as he was not near the scene of the accident he supposedly died in, and Richards rushes to block his friend from seeing Mrs. Mallard’s face. The implication is that Mrs. Mallard reveals a look of horror on her visage when she sees that her despised husband is still alive. Richards does not want her husband to discover his wife’s true feelings about him. The overwhelming disappointment at her freedom being irrevocably snuffed out again at the sight of her living husband is too much, and her “heart troubles” return to kill her. The powerful irony at the end is exposed when the doctor proclaims that she died from a “joy that kills”, suggesting that the overwhelming joy at the sight of her husband being alive is what killed her, when in fact it was quite the other way around; her disappointment ultimately killed her.
(The story can be found here:http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/webtexts/hour/)
Gwynn, R.S. . Literature: A Pocket Anthology. New York, NY: Penguin Academics, 2012.