This story was first published in 1894 as The Dream of an Hour.
This diagram, called Freytag’s Pyramid, is a traditional way to teach and talk about plot:
Have you seen this before, maybe in an English class? It’s a starting point for a lot of stories. Exposition (Introduction) gives us the basic background of the characters and situation. Something happens at the “point” in the triangle to launch us into rising action, rising complication. We get to a climax, the height of the action, maybe a battle scene or confrontation. Then, things begin to resolve. Sometimes the “denouement” is listed earlier, as a kind of almost resolution — one last hiccup before things are resolved — but then we settle into a resolution or a “new normal” after the events of the story.
Another literary element that goes along with this is conflict, in many traditional courses talked about as “Man vs. Man” or “Man vs. Nature” or “Man vs. Society” or “Man vs. Himself.” The obvious gender issues aside, this kind of model can be limiting. Don’t most stories have multiple conflicts going on? The hero versus an obvious villain but also facing his or her own internal limitations? Or the hero versus another person but also societal expectations?
“The Story of an Hour” is a fitting story to look at when questioning the traditional ways plot and conflict are talked about. This story doesn’t seem to have much of a plot, or at least not an action-oriented one. The story takes place in an hour, mostly as the main character sits staring out of her window! And yet there are tiny, subtle shifts which signal big developments. The conflict in this story is also subtle and contains layers of self, other, and society.
Let’s begin, and see how even a short, nearly action-less story can contain vivid and intriguing elements of storytelling. Hopefully you’ll find some new, more nuanced ways to talk about any story you encounter.
First, as you read the first sentence, what do you already know about character, setting, and situation? Circle or underline important details.
I marked: Mrs. Mallard (interesting that she’s “Mrs.,” not her first name); her husband. Already, her husband died! So we’re starting the story with a major event. She has heart trouble. People around her were careful with her; they’re treating her delicately. I’m thinking there’s a potential for something to happen to her. At this point, “what’s going to happen to her” seems to be the main situation or point of conflict.
Next paragraph: Her sister Josephine, a friend Richards, who double-checked the news and rushed to tell her so that someone else wouldn’t break it to her abruptly. Josephine talks to her in “veiled” ways, so indirectly. They’re both going to great lengths to protect her. As of now, I’m getting the impression that Mrs. Mallard is very delicate.
Now, continue reading the story, annotating as we just did. But also, mark any shifts. You might want to do this on a second read. Let’s see how this story is organized, even if nothing much happens. As you read, annotate (make notes) of important details, any questions you want to come back to, any important shifts or changes (such as from the exposition/ introduction into the main part of the story, a big revelation, an important change). Read the whole story once before you move on, even if you’re thinking: Wait, what happened? By the end! We’ll go through it!
So did you make it through? A bit of a shocking ending, right? I think its short length makes the story doubly impactful. So much happens from beginning to end in a very short piece — and yet not a lot actually physically happens.
Let’s see if we can trace back through the story and pinpoint the major shifts, major changes that signal the important moments in this story. What major shifts did you find? If you were to divide this story into sections, where would the sections be?
I think I would put the first one after: “She would have no one follow her.” The first three paragraphs are sort of the “exposition,” setting up the main characters and situation. We see Mrs. Mallard’s initial reaction to the news — weeping — but interestingly not as other women would have. I’m going to note that comment and come back to it.* Anyway, after that line, Mrs. Mallard goes into her room by herself. That major change of scene, physically separating herself from the others, seems like an important shift. Literally, a wall is now between her and the other characters. We’re wondering what might happen if she’s so delicate, as they believe!
So now, she’s in the room. Literally, what is happening? Beside each paragraph, list the main action in a few words or less. Go paragraph by paragraph, and think about what you would literally see if you were watching her in her room.
- sinks into an armchair
- looks out the window, maybe we could see her listening
- throws back her head onto the chair, motionless, some sobs escaping her mouth
- “bosom rose and fell tumultuously,” whispers “free free free”
- (lots of internal thinking — still looking out the window)
- she continues to whisper “free, body and soul, free!”
Then, I see a major shift again — a literal, sudden interruption: Josephine speaks into the keyhole, begging Louise (now we know her first name) to open the door. That’s a shift, too: Why do we know her first name now?
Did you have any other major shifts? I would argue that most of the rest of the story proceeds from that moment, when she’s interrupted, emerges, and comes down the stairs. You might say the final line — her death — could be its own separate section or resolution.
Now, let’s go back and look at what happened here!
How to Talk About Plot When There’s Not A lot of Plot
So what does happen with Mrs. Mallard? When she’s alone in the room, what does she go through? What do each of those actions show us?
At first, she’s exhausted, sinks down in the armchair. She’s tired in body and soul. What does she see when she looks outside? Life, “aquiver.” It’s cheery — full of possibilities. That’s a little surprising because usually when a character is exhausted or grieving, they look outside and see what — a rainstorm! She throws her head back, almost surrendering. Then, something rises up in her, involuntarily. She lets it rise. And what is it? The words, “Free, free, free.” Surprising, right? Probably to her, too! Then, we get a few narrated paragraphs of her reflection. She had loved her husband, “sometimes,” but she was excited to live life by her own will, not someone else’s. What other interesting descriptions do you see of Mrs. Mallard — Louise — and what happens to her? I’m thinking of the line her face had a “certain strength.”
This freedom and strength she finds is clear when she emerges from the room. How does she walk out of the room and down the stairs?
First, I love these last sentences in the room: “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.” So good at summarizing how she’s changed in the story, and so ironic when we consider what’s about to happen!
Then, she emerges:
“There was a feverish triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory.”
Wow. That’s quite a difference from the delicate, fragile woman presented to us at the beginning of the story! Now called Louise, our main character puts her hand around her sister’s waist, and they descend as equals, much different from the protection and coddling her sister showed her earlier.
Then, of course, we have this fatal (and almost comical?!) last event. She dies. The doctors say “of the joy that kills.” How do you interpret that last line? Remember it’s what others say about her, not what she herself would say.
Everyone else might have thought — she was so joyous in seeing her husband again her poor heart couldn’t handle it. We, though, know what happened in the room, her little private place where she could come to know her own soul.
So, if you were to use the traditional pyramid of plot, where would you put the events? Or if you were to isolate out the most important developments in the story for Louise, how would you describe the plot? What are the important moments?
First, this might help:
How to Talk About Conflict
Another way to talk about conflict, which might guide us in how we talk about plot and theme, is a little “equation.” The goal is not to name one single conflict but to name as many conflicts as you can think of:
A wants B but C.
Louise wants freedom but her husband turns out to be alive.
Louise wants to live her own life, but her society doesn’t allow that for women.
Louise wants to follow her own soul, but she has no escape.
Josephine wants to protect Louise, but Louise has her own soul — but she can’t protect her in the long run. No one can restrain another person’s soul forever.
The society wants women (Louise) to be protected and remain within marriage, but Louise finds her own way out, tragically. Is this the only way out for women?
See how many you can think of for the story. Do you see how beginning to talk about conflict in this way can lead us to themes? In those last two, I’m starting to get to major themes about a person’s soul vs. a society or family, and what possibility society allows for a person’s full existence, especially women’s full existence during this time. The story was published originally in 1894, during a women’s movement, and it caused a lot of controversy at the time! Why?
Back to Plot:
So as you narrow down which conflict you want to focus on, you can talk about the important plot points regarding that conflict. The plot you talk about might differ depending on which aspect of the story you’re focusing on.
Louise is seen as delicate and extremely fragile. In her world (exposition), her sister and friend go to great lengths to protect her. Alone in her own room, in her own body and soul, she goes from exhaustion and grief (rising action) to a new revelation — freedom (climax). She lets herself feel what she feels, and those feelings lead her to a new discovery. If she’d responded like many women had, or like she was expected to, she might not have had that discovery. But her choice to go in the room alone and connect with her real reactions, leads her to an empowered sense of self, and she emerges from the room anew (falling action). However, (resolution) she’s not allowed to keep going in that state — and abruptly dies upon seeing her husband. Maybe she knows that if he’s still alive, she’ll have to go back to being “Mrs. Mallard.” There is no other way in this society.
I’ve put in the traditional labels for the plot points I focused on. Yours might vary depending upon which conflict or aspect of the story you’re addressing. Try it out!
A note on resolution.
Resolution is important. How the story is resolved makes a statement about the conflict, the plot, the situation that directly impacts our discussion of theme, what we make of the story. Imagine if her husband was dead, and she went on, got her own place, and started a career. Imagine if the husband was alive, but she declared, as he walked in the door, “I’m free! I’m leaving!” But no, she drops dead abruptly! What does that ending say about these themes?
I hope this study of plot, conflict, and theme will be helpful to you as you read stories in the future. If you can apply these techniques to this very short, very action-less story, you can apply them to any story. I hope this way of thinking about plot and conflict will open up the possibilities for how you talk about the important plot moments and conflict in stories. I believe these elements are at the heart of why we read stories and why we tell them. Stories are a place we work out conflicts, imagine how they might go, how they might end, what might be possible. What happens to the characters, what happens in the plot is a series of choices. Plot might seem boring, but it’s one of my favorite things to analyze in a story. Why that action, and why not another? Each of these choices an author makes — or as many say they’re led to make by the characters themselves — tells us about the possibilities available to those characters, or to us as human beings, about what problems remain in the world, about the nature of the world the characters inhabit, that we inhabit.