Louise Mallard has a weak heart. Her sister Josephine, who is worried that bad news will overwhelm Louise and worsen her condition, tells her as calmly as possible that her husband, Brently Mallard, has been killed in a train accident. Brently’s friend Richards, who learned about the accident while spending time at the newspaper office, asked Josephine to deliver the news of the tragedy to Louise, and now he stands by as Louise hears that her husband has died.
Women were expected to be passive and delicate in the 19th century, and Louise’s heart condition reinforces this societal expectation. Her physical weakness further encourages the people around her—like Richards and Josephine—to stifle her emotions and overprotect her.
Unlike other women of her time period, who become paralyzed by denial when confronted by bad news, Louise weeps into Josephine’s arms with wild abandon.
Louise’s strong reaction to this bad news creates tension because it goes against society’s sexist expectations. It also challenges her body’s health-related limitations.
After her initial sobs of grief subside, Louise escapes into her bedroom and locks the door. She refuses to let Josephine or Richards follow her. Alone, she falls into a chair placed before an open window. Absolutely drained by her own anguish and haunted by exhaustion, she rests in the chair and looks out the window.
Louise’s desire to be alone with her grief is the first indication of her inclination toward freedom and independence, especially in regards to the handling of her own emotions. In keeping with the idea that she is weak, though, she is physically exhausted by sobbing.
Outside her window, Louise sees trees moving in the new spring wind, smells the scent of rain outside, and hears the sounds of the street below and birdsongs coming from the eaves of nearby buildings. Her face fixes in a blank stare as she looks at several swaths of blue sky stretching out between clusters of heavy clouds. And although she fights it—trying hard to resist—she senses a feeling approaching her. She is unable to articulate the nature of the sensation, which makes her fear it all the more. It seems ever-present, reaching out from the sky and coming to her through the smells that drift around her.
The elements of spring—the resurgent prominence of plant life, the return of birdsong, everything—embody an approaching revelation, and the vague signification of it all slowly overwhelms Louise. By resisting this unnamable feeling, she begins to fear its implications all the more. It is notable that the sensation seems to reach out to her from the sky and air, indicating its vast and all-encompassing strength.
As Louise tries to stave off this vague approaching feeling, she becomes increasingly physically excited and agitated. Slowly, she begins to grasp the feeling that so overtakes her, and she redoubles her efforts to keep it away. Despite her resolve, though, she suddenly gives herself over to the encroaching feeling. In an unguarded moment, her lips part and a word escapes her mouth, and then she repeats it over and over: “free, free, free!”
In this moment, Louise once again experiences the kind of physical and emotional excitement that she is supposed to avoid because of her heart condition. Yet again, she disregards the limitations placed upon her by her own body and by society, finally giving herself over to the growing sense of freedom represented by the emergence of spring outside the window.
Now Louise’s heart pulses faster and her blood rushes through her body, but this only relaxes her and turns her fearful state into one of enlivened vigor. She pays no attention to whether or not the joy she feels about Brently’s death is terrible or unkind. Although she knows that she will inevitably experience grief when she sees his dead body and his fixed and gray face that had always looked at her with love, the prospect seems a small price to pay for the life of freedom and independence that now stretches out before her, a life in which she can make her own choices and live for herself for the first time.
Louise’s fast heartbeat no longer seems an antagonistic force. Her physical excitement has now been reframed as an indication of her happiness regarding her new independent life. That she will regret seeing her husband’s dead body emphasizes the fact that she never disliked Brently as a person. She holds no grudge against him, as he had always been kind and loving to her. Her joy, then, is the result of the life ahead of her that will be full of freedom and independence.
Louise realizes that she will no longer be subjected to the powerful rules and norms of marriage, which cause humans to blindly and stubbornly impose themselves on one another. Although she had sometimes loved Brently (and sometimes had not), she feels relieved to finally be in possession of an intense sense of self-assertion, which she recognizes as “the strongest impulse of her being.” Deciding that the value of love and marriage counts for very little when compared to her freedom of will, she ecstatically whispers, “Free! Body and soul free!”
In the 19th century, women were expected to live under the financial and social control of their husbands. In this moment, Louise recognizes the rare opportunity she now has to escape this patriarchal dynamic. The fact that she identifies her freedom of will as strong—“the strongest impulse of her being”—once more challenges the previously established notion that she is weak. Whereas before, under marriage’s oppressive control, she was viewed as dependent on others, now her self-assertion renders her both physically and emotionally free, as evidenced by her exclamation, “Body and soul free!”
Meanwhile, worried that Louise will make herself sick by staying alone in her bedroom, Josephine kneels outside the room and begs her sister through the keyhole to open the door. Louise tells Josephine to go away and that she’s not making herself ill. She keeps her joy to herself and revels in the idea that her new life—which will be full of freedom—is totally and completely her own. She says a short prayer that her life will be long, and knows that it was just the day before when she wished it would be short.
In keeping with nineteenth-century society’s stifling nature, well-intentioned attempts to protect Louise end up further invading her personal freedom and independence. Josephine’s overprotective worry risks interfering with Louise’s emotional process, ultimately demonstrating to readers that the people around Louise are more concerned about controlling her emotional response than with helping her.
Eventually Louise rises from her chair and opens the door, just as Josephine begs her to. Louise’s eyes are alight with triumph, and without realizing it she carries herself like a kind of goddess. She embraces her sister.
Louise’s posture and gaze symbolize confidence and power despite her sister’s overprotective intrusion and the expectation that she remain passive and weak. By embracing her sister she proves once again that she holds no grudges against those who ultimately oppress her.
Together, the two sisters descend the stairs, where Richards stands waiting at the bottom. As they do so, they hear the sound of a key opening the front door. Without warning, Brently Mallard appears in the doorframe, utterly unaware of any train accident; he had been far from the scene of the tragedy. Calmly standing at the bottom of the stairs, he is shocked by Louise’s deafening scream and by Richards’s futile attempt to shield him from his wife’s view. When doctors later examine Louise’s body, they pronounce that she died because of her weak heart, “of joy that kills.”
Brently is completely oblivious to the process of self-discovery Louise has undergone. Though it is not his fault, his presence gives Louise the message that her freedom could never be a reality. In a way, Louise’s death, then, is the only way for her to gain independence, in light of the fact that her husband (and, thus, her marriage) is still alive. Of course, her death ironically reinforces the idea that she is weak, and the doctors’ pronouncement that she perished of a “joy that kills” furthers this irony, for they are not entirely wrong. Joy does, in fact, play a role in her death: she dies not because she regains joy, but because she suddenly loses it after having only briefly tasted it.