Louise Mallard has a weak heart that puts her at risk if she becomes too animated. After hearing from Richards—a friend of the family—that Louise’s husband Brently Mallard has died in a train accident, her sister Josephine takes great care to break the news to Louise in a gentle, measured way. Despite Josephine’s best efforts, though, Louise is inconsolable with grief. She weeps intensely into her sister’s arms before fleeing into her bedroom, shutting and locking the door behind herself.
In her bedroom, she collapses into a chair facing a window and, exhausted by her own sobbing, stares outside at a collection of newly blossomed trees and various stretches of blue in the sky. Life on the streets below goes along like normal, and as Louise sits motionless in the chair, she begins to sense with fear that something—some feeling—is approaching her. She is unable to define or name the approaching sensation because it is too abstract, too vague. Scared, she tries to keep the feeling at bay, but it’s no use because everything—the new spring life outside, the smell of rain, the expansive sky—seems to embody the sensation, and she feels it reaching toward her.
Suddenly she lets her guard down and finds herself mouthing the word “free” over and over again. No longer passive, her heart beats fast and her rushing blood enlivens her. Joy floods her and she imagines the life ahead of her with complete excitement and happiness: despite the fact that she and her husband enjoyed a stable, loving marriage, she is flooded with ecstasy by the prospect of no longer being required to live dependent upon her husband, upon anyone. Now the remainder of her life belongs only to her, and she is overjoyed at the idea of this freedom.
Worried that Louise is making herself sick by staying in her room alone, Josephine kneels on the ground and speaks through the door’s keyhole, imploring her sister to let her in. After uttering a quick prayer that her new life will be long, Louise rises and confidently strides out of the bedroom. Together with her sister, she starts walking down the steps toward where Richards waits at the bottom.
The sound of keys fiddling in the front door travels into the house, and suddenly the door opens and Brently Mallard nonchalantly enters. Apparently he had been nowhere near the train accident that had supposedly killed him. In an effort to protect Louise from the utter shock of seeing her living husband, Richards quickly tries to obscure Brently, but to no avail, and Louise lets out her final sound: a sharp scream that startles and mystifies her husband. When the doctors inspect Louise’s dead body, they decide that she died because her heart was too excited—too overjoyed—to see her husband.