Mrs. Mallard is the character we know the most about by far. Of course, that's not saying much. She's the protagonist, the center of attention, and the person around whom all the other characters revolve. At the beginning of the story, when Mr. Mallard dies, the other characters (Richards and Josephine) put aside their personal grief to console Mrs. Mallard. Their first priority is taking care of her – making sure she gets through the hard news without dying herself. Likewise, at the end of the story, the other characters try to take care of her first, rather than concentrating on their own feelings about seeing Mr. Mallard alive and well after all.
So, what kind of person is Mrs. Mallard? We know from the beginning that she is "afflicted with a heart trouble" (1). She's unwell, with a genteel condition, which means she can still act like and be treated like a lady. We can tell from the description of her "two white slender hands" (10) that she doesn't work, or engage in manual labor. It seems like all the people in her life are looking out for her and trying to take care of her, at least during the hour in which we get to know her.
The narrator describes her, physically, as "young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength" (8). In other words, she's got youth on her side; she's pretty; and usually, it seems like, pretty placid. The narrator says that the "lines" of Mrs. Mallard's face indicate that she's keeping a lot of stuff inside, or that she's full of "repression." But what's she holding back? We can only imagine. Up to this point in her life, Mrs. Mallard has not letting her feelings come to the surface or given them free rein. In contrast to the way the other characters treat her, which is as someone weak and delicate, the narrator claims Mrs. Mallard has "a certain strength."
It's hard to know what kind of marriage the Mallards had. Mrs. Mallard describes her husband as always being nice to her and seeming full of love. But those descriptions just don't jive with her tremendous relief about getting to live on after he dies:
And yet she had loved him – sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter! What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being! (15)
This is a fairly flippant way of reducing grand concepts like love, "the unsolved mystery," and faithfulness or partnership to something that doesn't matter very much.
What should we make of this combination of thoughts, where Mrs. Mallard says, "she had loved him – sometimes. Often she had not"? How can you love someone "sometimes" but not all the time? It seems like in a committed marriage, where the two people involved really love each other, that even when they're having problems or disagreeing that their love would still be there. After all, you don't stop loving your partner if she/he doesn't take out the trash or strands you with the in-laws – right? So, either Mr. Mallard was doing something really bad occasionally to Mrs. Mallard, which would make her stop loving him, or her love for him just wasn't that deep in the first place. Any love she had for him is here just blown out of the water in favor of the "self-assertion" she's only just realized. This feeling of who she is and who she can be is by far the "strongest" she's ever felt.
Maybe it's not about Mr. Mallard in particular that Mrs. Mallard has a problem with. It seems like any man in her husband's position would have limited her freedom:
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 (14).
She and her husband become abstract concepts, "fellow-creature[s]." Making this abstract statement gives Mrs. Mallard an indirect opportunity to criticize her husband, calling his influence in her daily life an instance of "powerful will." From her use of the phrase "blind persistence," it seems like she thinks Mr. Mallard wasn't watching or listening to figure out what her wants and needs were, but just kept exerting his own "will" over and over. But maybe this is what would happen in any marriage. You can't be with someone, Mrs. Mallard seems to be saying, and remain absolutely yourself.
The overwhelming word and thought Mrs. Mallard has when her husband dies is "free" (11, 16). Independence seems terrible and awesome at the same time. Feeling like she's going to be free almost makes Mrs. Mallard into a whole new person. Suddenly, she's excited about her future, whereas before she dreaded it. She wants to live now, whereas before that she didn't.
It's really too bad that Mrs. Mallard realizes that she needs freedom only shortly before she dies. Her excitement and sense of liberation only last a little while. Of course, they're such powerful feelings, that maybe they wouldn't have lasted much longer anyway. It's deeply ironic that Mrs. Mallard's life ends up being violently shortened only moments after her heartfelt prayer that "life might be long" (19).Timeline