Why Wasn’t Brently Mallard on that Train?
A Tool for Enriching Classroom Conversations about “The Story of an Hour”
by Lois Ann Abraham
Lois Ann Abraham teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at American River College. Her work has been published in Writing on the Edge, Sojourner, and elsewhere. Circus Girl & Other Stories (Ad Lumen Press) is coming out in July 2014.
Like many college English instructors, I often assign Kate Chopin’s famous 1893 “The Story of an Hour” in my literature and creative writing classes. Besides being a classic, it has the non-literary virtue of being short, only 1107 words, so students can read it in class on a day when they are handing in a major writing project. It offers a great introduction to the elements of fiction, which then can be applied to longer literary works assigned for reading at home. And of course creative writing students study the same elements, point of view, imagery, character, setting, etc., to analyze the work of others and make deliberate writing and revision choices for their own work.
The content of “The Story of an Hour” is provocative; it raises issues about gender roles and class, leading to wide-ranging conversations in the classroom. What were women expected to be in Chopin’s day? How is that different today? What would have been different had the Mallards been a working class couple? Why isn’t Louise concerned about paying the bills without her working husband’s paycheck? How was marriage constructed in Chopin’s time? How now? How does this story compare to other literary works in which female characters seek to escape the oppression of their societies? These are all fruitful topics for classroom discussion after a quick read.
In my experience, most students see Louise as a victim of her society and sometimes of her missing husband Brently. The days when a woman’s desire for freedom from a marriage was seen as controversial or “monstrous” appear to be long gone. Feminism has made some changes in our reading as in our society, and that’s all to the good. What shocked Chopin’s original audience leaves modern students wondering why Louise Mallard didn’t just get a divorce and “get on with her life.” Enough of our community college students have life experience in this area to bring to the discussion. Phrases like “dysfunctional relationship” crop up regularly and often dominate student discussions of this story, as though such labels offered an explanation rather than a door that can be opened onto exploration. This language is the discourse of self-help books, pop psychology, and TV talk shows. If Louise Mallard is happy on the occasion of Brently’s death, the shallow thinking goes, he must have been abusive. This proposition follows the unquestioned conclusion that the solution to any social problem, and again I quote from many student essays on such topics, “is all up to the individual.” It is hard to crack the belief that Brently is at fault in spite of the lack of evidence within the story itself to support such a supposition.
“There must have been emotional abuse going on then,” one of my students said, when another student had pointed out that Brently’s hands were “kind” and “tender,” and that “his face…had never looked save with love upon her.”
“Where is your evidence in the text? What do you see that leads you to this conclusion?” I asked. “Show me what you see.”I expected to be directed to the “powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.” But the student referred to her own opinion rather than the text for evidence.
“Just because she (Chopin) doesn’t say so doesn’t mean it’s not there,” the student replied darkly.
This led to a good discussion about close reading and how we read through our own experience and through expectations based on the mores and discourse of our own times. We talked about how the currency of tags such as “dysfunctional” can be used to close inquiry and how that inquiry might be opened up. We talked about the social contract of marriage and how it has changed, is still changing, over time. But I’m pretty sure that student number one still knows in her heart that Brently was abusive somehow, and that this is the hinge on which the story turns, no matter what her teacher, her fellow student, or Kate Chopin says.
The tendency for many students (and the one I quote is representative of a large group) to sympathize with Louise and justify her “monstrous” welcome of her husband’s death is understandable. “The Story of an Hour” is exclusively Louise Mallard’s story, narrated from the third person limited point of view. With the exception of two small moments when the narrator slips in a spot of omniscience, all the information is about Louise Mallard’s experience of this event, this one hour of her life, which in the end is the final hour. This privileging, even valorizing, of the wife’s position leads fairly easily, as my student demonstrated, to demonizing the absent husband.
Over time and many teachings of “The Story of an Hour,” I developed a secret soft spot for Brently, as I frequently do for characters who seem to exist merely to intensify the thematic fireworks. I sense that these characters are not getting a fair shake. For example, in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” I want to champion Dee, whose personality may be a little edgy, but whose perspective has a lot more merit than I think Walker allows. I wondered often why Brently Mallard wasn’t on the fatal train.
I continued to ask myself how to make “The Story of an Hour” more complex for modern students, and being a story writer myself, I finally broke down and composed the following short story, titled “Brently’s Hour,” using, I hope, the same facts and similar language to Chopin’s. I suggest that it could be used in the literature classroom as a companion piece to complicate the conversation about “The Story of an Hour.” Students may find that their original assumptions are challenged by this switch in viewpoint. In the creative writing classroom, “Brently’s Hour” provides a good example of how we can build on the classics, as in John Gardener’s Grendel, the musical Wicked, and the film Clueless, to mention just a few. Students can be encouraged to dig into an unexplored character to find their own unique story, thus learning from and interacting textually with the author and the original text.
In creating “Brently’s Hour” I used the following premises: 1) The Mallards have no children; 2) Louise Mallard has a heart condition that requires special care; 3) Brently unexpectedly misses his train;4) A death can be the advent of freedom.
I offer my story here, followed by some questions for classroom discussion. My story covers the same hour, this time following Brently Mallard instead of Louise.
by Lois Ann Abraham
Brently Mallard did not die in the terrible railroad accident only because he had missed his usual train, lying instead in a warm bed with Deborah Huntworth in his arms. He had fallen asleep, exhausted by their vigorous passion, and the overwhelming relief of her expressions of desire, shy at first, and then increasingly bold and free.
This was the third time they had lain together, though they occasionally met socially at teas and dinners where a widow like Deborah Huntworth was invited to balance the table seating. She had worn black, a good color for her, for the full year, and she had behaved with propriety. Brently disciplined himself to avoid even glancing at her at these affairs. He wished above all to avoid scandal. He had his wife to protect.
He had been a mere twenty-one when he had fallen in love with his wife Louise, charmed by her sweet face, her lacy garments like white plumage, her delicate, fluttering hands. When he had asked her to marry him, she had burst, charmingly, into tears and fled the room. Her sister, Josephine, instead gave the answer — yes, Louise accepted his proposal. During their engagement, the sight of Louise’s narrow foot was enough to make him feel warm and ardent, and he eagerly awaited the day when he was licensed to penetrate the foam of white lace and ruffles that masked her delicate limbs.
The night before the wedding, his old friend Richards had sat up with him. Their conversation grew jolly, but there was a look in Richards’ eye that troubled Brently.
“You had the knowledge that her heart was weak before you made your offer, did you not?”
“She will not have me. She weeps and when once I . . . insisted, she was ill for three days, and the hotel doctors were called in. What am I to do, Richards? I’m just a man.”
“Do you love your wife?”
“Of course I do, with all my heart!”
“Then you must protect this helpless creature now entrusted to your care — surely you see that. You may seek your pleasures elsewhere, but you must protect her.”
Recollecting his responsibility, Brently woke, rose from the bed, and gathered his crumpled clothing. He dressed silently, as Deborah watched him, a half-smile on her generous lips, her dark eyes intelligent and calm. “Best hurry—you’ll be late,” she said.
The express was pulling out as he leaped from the hansom cab, so he had to settle for the 5:47. As the train rattled along, he sat in a dream, ignorant of the newsboys who hollered bold headlines through the passenger cars at every stop. Instead he thought of Deborah, and the way she lay revealed when the covers had slipped from the bed.
The closer he drew to Carlisle station, the stiffer his posture on the rattling seat became and the deeper the lines in his face. Going home to his wife and household, he felt like an inmate returning to prison, but he determined to mask his feelings in a kind face.
Brently walked home from the station, an hour late. Arriving at his doorway, he was surprised to see Richards there, and more surprised at Richards’ shocked expression. A short cry from the stairs drew his attention and he saw Louise collapse, a white, fluttering creature, onto the landing, then roll down the stairs, the draperies of her clothing tossed for once to the side. He quickly flicked them back over her thin legs, and felt for a pulse.
Josephine screamed, Richards shouted incoherently, and Brently ordered him to fetch the doctor, though in his heart he knew his wife was dead. And that same heart, the heart of a man, beat stronger, and a word formed itself in the back of his mind, a word monstrous and yet all the more welcome for that.
Questioning the Text
- How good a friend is Richards in this version of the story?
- What were the headlines Brently didn’t notice as he sat in the train?
- When Brently is almost home, what thought does he push away? In “The Story of an Hour,” what does Louise try to “push away?”
- In the next to last paragraph, Brently is described in a conventional phrase: “hoping against hope.” What is the irony of this phrase? What is the corresponding ironic phrase used in “The Story of an Hour”?
- At the end of the story, what is the word in Brently’s mind? How is it monstrous? What is the corresponding monstrous word for Louise in “The Story of an Hour”?
Questions for Discussion
- Which of the two stories, “The Story of an Hour” and “Brently’s Hour,” do you find most persuasive? Which protagonist is the most understandable for you? How does the gender of the protagonist affect your choice? How does the order in which you read these two stories affect your preference?
- How does “Brently’s Hour” complicate your reading of “The Story of an Hour”? How are the themes of each similar? How are they different? Is Brently’s relief at Louise’s death any more “monstrous” than Louise’s relief at Brently’s death?
- Think about other stories (or movies or TV shows) you are familiar with in which you felt a particular character’s story needed to be told. Consider, for example, Dee in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” or the wife in Raymond Carver’s “Cathedrals.” How would the story be changed by a re-telling from this character’s point of view? What surprises could arise from changing just this one element of fiction? What else has to change? What would you reveal if you wrote this story or another of your choice?
- “Brently’s Story” was written in 2001, “The Story of an Hour” in 1894. How is the difference in the stories explained by this time gap? What has changed in our society? How does the modern story use the older language of the original? What effect does this have on your reading?