Today, I don’t propose to belabor the point contained in the title of my post, only to illustrate it with a story (not one of Hawthorne’s, but of a later author’s) which I believe establishes the point quite clearly in a fictional mode. As you may or may not be aware, the “illumination” of the “infernal regions” wasn’t looked upon entirely negatively in the Romantic period during which Hawthorne was writing, as is evidenced by the stories Hawthorne himself wrote, such as “Young Goodman Brown” and “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” in both of which a devilish figure or an evil experience causes a protagonist to have a greater awareness of self and what is contained in the complex self, as opposed to viewing himself or herself as the instigator only of good things and positive experiences. Many a protagonist has viewed himself or herself in a naive light as being totally innocent, until some tempter or provocative experience comes along to change that view, and thus to make him or her aware of the dividedness of human reactions in daily life. And since, like David Copperfield, we would choose if we could to view ourselves as the “heroes of our own lives,” this knowledge hits us hard. It can be seen and has been seen in some stories and tales as the impetus toward further bad behavior, because the protagonist reasons that he or she is already lost and might as well (in Milton’s words) “reign in hell” rather than “serve in heaven.” Thus, to the true believer in God, it is a point of some discomfort that the Devil often tells a lie by revealing part of the truth, making the total “revelation” seem more convincing by force of the fact that a substantial part of it seems or is true. It takes a real saint to stick to the belief, when visited by the view of his or her shortcomings, that “it’s not over until it’s over,” because Heaven and Hell are both beyond the purview of the ordinary fallible human being.
The heroine in our story of today, however, is not feeling guilt or remorse; rather, in Kate Chopin’s short short story “The Story of an Hour,” Mrs. Mallard is cherishing to herself the knowledge that her sometimes beloved husband is dead in a railway accident, which is the news brought to her by her sister Josephine. Josephine and the husband’s friend Richards are both there to break the news to Mrs. Mallard as gently as possible, because though young, she has a heart condition, and they are afraid the shock of her husband’s death will kill her. The story does not immediately show its hand, however. Mrs. Mallard goes to her room crying, and locks herself in, and the people below assume that she is overcome with grief. But we are told that she feels some “thing that was approaching to possess her,” which is a moment of self-knowledge that she is fighting off. Here, instead of grief, is what is passing in the first instance when we get a clue to the contrary: “When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: ‘free, free, free!’ The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body. She did not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her. A clear and exalted perception enabled her to dismiss the suggestion as trivial. She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead. But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome….There would be no 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. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.” Thus, the word “illumination” is clearly used here as counter for what she experiences in her heart of hearts, and though Kate Chopin is often hailed as a feminist avatar, she is equally clearly fair-minded in that she says of the quality she describes here that both men and women may try to impose their wills on others, for “kind” or “cruel” motives.
The heroine exults a while longer in her room in private, and then comes to the door to her sister Josephine’s bidding, and walks downstairs with her, arm in arm, ready to receive the sympathy awaiting her and presumably ready to play the role of the grieving widow in some measure. But at the very moment they meet Richards at the bottom of the stairs, something unexpected happens, to bring the story to a close in the manner of an O. Henry story or that of the “surprise ending”: “Some one was opening the front door with a latchkey. It was [Mrs. Mallard’s husband] Brently  who entered, a little travel-stained, composedly carrying his gripsack and umbrella. He had been far from the scene of accident, and did not even know there had been one. He stood amazed at Josephine’s piercing cry; at Richards’ quick motion to screen him from the view of his wife. But Richards was too late. When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease–of joy that kills.” And at this point, it is important to remember that Mrs. Mallard does not die simply because her looked-for and projected freedom of future years has now received a knock in the head–she is also partly in joy to see her husband, just as her illumination would have predicted. It is in fact a moment of “joy that kills,” and sudden surprise, and disappointment, and even her weak heart simply responding to too much stress. It is in fact not only her “demon” of feeling subject to her husband, but also her “angel” of being astounded and glad to see him alive which, fighting a war in her weak physical bosom, kills her.
Thus, the “illuminating blaze of the infernal regions” is part and parcel of that mixture of emotions and states which are not “simply dark or bright.” Hawthorne is making a counterintuitive claim that even a “dark” emotion, if taken in its pure state, is better than a mixed emotion, which involves the human being in so much turmoil that many a person will attempt to resolve the question to one extreme or the other in order not to be torn or suspended over the abyss between the two. Is it any wonder that Kate Chopin, a Romantic by the tradition of the American fin de siècle in her own right, follows his insight and creates a heroine who loses her life in the devastating encounter of dark and bright?