Upon hearing the news of Brently Mallard's tragic railroad accident death in the newspaper office, his friend Richards rushes to the Mallards' house, where he and Mrs. Mallard's sister Josephine gently inform the weak-hearted Mrs. Mallard of Brently's death. In response, Louise Mallard weeps openly before going to sit alone in her room.
Exhausted, Mrs. Mallard sits motionless in her armchair by the window and looks at all the beauty of the outside world, occasionally sobbing. She is young, with a calm and strong face, but she stares dully into the sky while she waits nervously for a revelation. Finally, she realizes despite her initial opposition that she is now free. Terror leaves her eyes while her pulse beats faster.
Mrs. Mallard knows that she will mourn her loving husband's death, but she also predicts many years of freedom, which she welcomes. She begins planning her future, in which she will live without the burden of other people. She loved her husband, more or less, but love is nothing to her when compared to independence, she decides, as she murmurs, "Free! Body and soul free!"
Josephine asks Mrs. Mallard to let her enter because she is afraid that the grieving widow will make herself ill, but Mrs. Mallard is actually imagining the happiness of the years ahead. In fact, only the day before she had feared living a long life. Triumphantly, she answers the door and goes downstairs with her arm around Josephine's waist, where Richards awaits.
At this moment, Brently Mallard comes in the front door, having been nowhere near the train disaster. Richards moves in front of him to hide him from seeing his wife when she cries out. By the time the doctors arrive, she has died from "heart disease," purportedly from "the joy that kills."
Chopin tackles complex issues involved in the interplay of female independence, love, and marriage through her brief but effective characterization of the supposedly widowed Louise Mallard in her last hour of life. After discovering that her husband has died in a train accident, Mrs. Mallard faces conflicting emotions of grief at her husband's death and exultation at the prospects for freedom in the remainder of her life. The latter emotion eventually takes precedence in her thoughts. As with many successful short stories, however, the story does not end peacefully at this point but instead creates a climactic twist. The reversal--the revelation that her husband did not die after all-- shatters Louise's vision of her new life and ironically creates a tragic ending out of what initially appeared to be a fortuitous turn of events. As a result, it is Mr. Mallard who is free of Mrs. Mallard, although we do not learn whether the same interplay of conflicting emotions occurs for him.
Chopin presents Mrs. Mallard as a sympathetic character with strength and insight. As Louise understands the world, to lose her strongest familial tie is not a great loss so much as an opportunity to move beyond the "blind persistence" of the bondage of personal relationships. In particular, American wives in the late nineteenth century were legally bound to their husbands' power and status, but because widows did not bear the responsibility of finding or following a husband, they gained more legal recognition and often had more control over their lives. Although Chopin does not specifically cite the contemporary second-class situation of women in the text, Mrs. Mallard's exclamations of "Free! Body and soul free!" are highly suggestive of the historical context.
Beyond the question of female independence, Louise seems to suggest that although Brently Mallard has always treated their relationship with the best of intentions, any human connection with such an effect of permanence and intensity, despite its advantages, must also be a limiting factor in some respects. Even Louise's physical description seems to hint at her personality, as Chopin associates her youthful countenance with her potential for the future while mentioning lines that "bespoke repression and even a certain strength." Although neither her sister nor Brently's friend Richards would be likely to understand her point of view, Louise Mallard embraces solitude as the purest prerequisite for free choice.
Mrs. Mallard's characterization is complicated by the fleeting nature of her grief over her husband, as it might indicate excessive egotism or shameless self-absorption. Nevertheless, Chopin does much to divert us from interpreting the story in this manner, and indeed Mrs. Mallard's conversion to temporary euphoria may simply suggest that the human need for independence can exceed even love and marriage. Notably, Louise Mallard reaches her conclusions with the suggestive aid of the environment, the imagery of which symbolically associates Louise's private awakening with the beginning of life in the spring season. Ironically, in one sense, she does not choose her new understanding but instead receives it from her surroundings, "creeping out of the sky." The word "mallard" is a word for a kind of duck, and it may well be that wild birds in the story symbolize freedom.
To unify the story under a central theme, Chopin both begins and ends with a statement about Louise Mallard's heart trouble, which turns out to have both a physical and a mental component. In the first paragraph of "The Story of an Hour," Chopin uses the term "heart trouble" primarily in a medical sense, but over the course of the story, Mrs. Mallard's presumed frailty seems to be largely a result of psychological repression rather than truly physiological factors. The story concludes by attributing Mrs. Mallard's death to heart disease, where heart disease is "the joy that kills." This last phrase is purposefully ironic, as Louise must have felt both joy and extreme disappointment at Brently's return, regaining her husband and all of the loss of freedom her marriage entails. The line establishes that Louise's heart condition is more of a metaphor for her emotional state than a medical reality.