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‘His heart skipped a beat’ is a common idiom used to describe someone after he has just experienced a moment of shock or surprise. It is often used in a comical sense with the subject of the line never being in any real danger. However, in “The Story of an Hour,” the main character’s heart skipped one too many beats in an unexpected reversal of fortunes that resulted in her death. The story focuses on Mrs. Mallard, a woman with heart problems who receives news that her husband has been unexpectedly killed. After her initial grieving, she soon comes to realize her newfound freedom without being tied down by a husband, only to soon hear a knock on her front door. Standing in the opened door was none other than her presumed dead husband, alive and well. However, instead of the expected tearful reunion, Mrs. Mallard collapses and dead before the doctor arrives. In “The Story of an Hour,” the theme of death’s profound influence over life is examined through Mrs. Mallard’s reactions and ironic death and is explained, in part, by a scholarly source on cardiac issues caused by sudden emotional stress.

In “The Story of an Hour,” death wields both a positive and negative influence on the story’s central character, playing an essential role in composing the theme of the work, as well as influencing events of the story in unexpected ways. The negative effect of death is shown through the grief Mrs. Mallard experiences in learning her husband has died in an accident. After her friends delicately reveal to her the news, her mental state initially is shattered by a “storm of grief” (Chopin 178). This storm not only shifts the story’s tone to a drearier note but also leads Mrs. Mallard to a primary subject of the story, freedom. Mrs. Mallard’s initial reaction to the news of her husband’s death is not what would be traditionally expected from a newly widowed woman. Instead of entering a state of disbelief, Mrs. Mallard immediately begins to sob. This reaction is odd because she asks no questions about how or where Mr. Mallard died. This reaction indicates that Mrs. Mallard did not in fact care as much for Mr. Mallard as previously thought. This leads to the positive effects of death in the story. After Mrs. Mallard has collected her thoughts, the tone of the story shifts in a more hopeful direction, and she looks out her window to see endless possibilities in the forms of trees full of “new spring life” and sparrows singing a song for those around to hear (Chopin 178). This tonal shift is then solidified through Mrs. Mallard’s repeating of the word “free,” indicating how she is now free to be her own woman without the influence of her husband or his “imposing will” (Chopin 179). These negative and positive effects of death are prevalent throughout the short story and ultimately, the positive effect plays a role in Mrs. Mallard’s unfortunate demise at the hands of emotion.

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Throughout the story, irony plays a large role in developing the theme. The most prominent example of irony comes in the form of Mrs. Mallard’s death. The story starts with the news of Mr. Mallard’s death, instilling the idea that his death will be the primary death in the story. However, this image is flipped in an instance of situational irony when he turns out to be alive and Mrs. Mallard ends up the only death in the story. Keeping with the situational irony of Mrs. Mallard’s death, at the beginning of the story, her friends were trying to delicately break the news of Mrs. Mallard’s husband’s death to her and not upset her too much due to her heart condition. They succeeded in this, however, their efforts were for naught as Mrs. Mallard dies in the end, ironically, by receiving the opposite news of what her friends broke to her so delicately to keep her alive. This death was likely due to the very heart condition that her friends were concerned about, which when combined with extreme emotional distress, according to Wittstein et al., could have caused a heart attack that killed her. The other prominent subject of irony is Mrs. Mallard’s reaction to Mr. Mallard’s death. Her reaction to her husband’s death could be expected as the reaction to finding out your husband is dead; however, the irony comes into play when the grief suddenly turns to joy and hopefulness. Instead of feeling distraught, Mrs. Mallard rejoices in her newfound freedom, the complete opposite response that would be expected of a new widow.

The theme of how death can influence people both directly and indirectly is accentuated through the unexpected death of Mrs. Mallard, something that according to one study, could actually happen with the same variables. Early in the story, it is mentioned that Mrs. Mallard has heart problems. The author does not go into detail about these heart problems, however, the specifics may not be necessary to uncover Mrs. Mallard’s true cause of death. According to Wittstein et al., extreme emotional distress can be a potential cause of “myocardial stunning,” a stunt in normal heart function (Wittstein et al.). In severe cases, this myocardial stunning can result in myocardial infarction, or as it is better known, a heart attack (Wittstein et al.). In the story, when Mrs. Mallard’s unexpectedly not-dead-husband opens the door and unknowingly reveals to Mrs. Mallard that she is in fact not free of her marriage, the combination of disappointment, joy, and shock could have proved too much for her body to handle. This extreme emotional stress on her body may have indirectly caused exactly what Wittstein et al. observed in their study and resulted in a myocardial infarction that ended up killing Mrs. Mallard.

In “The Story of an Hour,” the theme of death’s deep impact on life is highlighted through Mrs. Mallard’s reactions and ironic demise which is rationalized, in part, by a scholarly source on myocardial problems caused by sudden emotional strain. The story perfectly encapsulates how death is not purely negative, that it can have positive outcomes hidden beneath the grief. This is further expanded upon by the numerous examples of irony throughout the story which serve to illustrate the complexities of death and its emotional outcomes. Additionally, the secondary source written by Wittstein et al. explains how such an unexpected event that plays a huge role in the theme could conceivably happen. The article not only explains how Mrs. Mallard likely died but also expands on what may have happened had Mrs. Mallard’s friends not been as delicate as they were with their breaking of the initial news. Death is much more complicated than most believe it to be. Especially in “The Story of an Hour,” there are positive effects that go hand-in-hand with the negative and while death is something to avoid and reject, it is not entirely negative. 

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