‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’ by Kate Chopin: Short Story Analysis
‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’ is a realistic story with a strong feminist drive. The short story has been penned by American writer Kate Chopin, a forerunner of twentieth-century American feminist writers. Chopin narrates most of her short stories from a feminist point of view. In this story titled ‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’, Mrs. Sommers, a devoted lower-middle-class housewife, spends all her fifteen dollars on herself instead of her brood of children and their needs. She spends her money on and for herself that one day of her life, indicative that she was more than just a parent; she too was a living and breathing entity. In her elegant and crisp prose, Kate Chopin tells us that women do not lose their individuality once they become wives and mothers. They, too, have their needs and desires. However, they are always told to sacrifice their needs and wants for their families. The reality of Mrs. Sommers’ dream life comes out beautifully and very poignantly here in this story. This story is here to say that women are people too, and they are stifling their dreams for others.
Mrs. Sommers had once seen better days and enough money to go to restaurants, shop for anything she wanted, watch plays, buy expensive magazines and books, et al. We are not told exactly how she came down in the world to live a life of penury. However, there is a mention made that her neighbors spoke of Mrs. Sommers’ ‘better days’. There is no mention of a husband in the short story, so either he was no more or had separated from Mrs. Sommers. Mrs. Sommers had morphed into a ‘savings machine’ where she calculated everything that she spent and made sure that she placed her little children’s needs before herself. She never catered to her wants and needs; individuality was ‘dead’ in her. When she goes out shopping that one fateful day with fifteen dollars in her purse, the old refined and cultivated personality in the otherwise matronly and homely Mrs. Sommers comes to the fore. So, indeed, she was well off once; she must have married into poverty. The fact that she still held on to her children and didn’t give them up for her pursuits symbolizes the lengths a mother can go to keep her children happy, even to sacrifice her personality. Notice that Mrs. Sommers does not even have a name in this short story; her husband’s surname identifies her. The pathetic nature of this subtle form of patriarchy is hard to miss.
Mrs. Sommers went out with her fifteen dollars, hoping to spend it all on her children and very little on herself. She only wanted a pair or two of stockings for herself made from percale, which is a closely woven fine cotton fabric generally used for making bedsheets. It is ridiculous to think that anyone would want to make stockings out of such a material, but that was what the harassed and overworked Mrs. Sommers was planning on doing. Her need for one or two pairs of stockings would make her buy a costly pair of silk stockings that cost her a whopping 1 dollar and 98 cents in those times. She doesn’t do this on her own; the young naïve store salesgirl sees Mrs. Sommers resting her hand on her counter and places the stockings for her to examine. This salesgirl is very important because she is the first person after a very long time who has recognized Mrs. Sommers beyond her lower-middle-class self. She sees Mrs. Sommers as a woman with needs and good taste and gives her the stockings to examine.
As we know in this story, Mrs. Sommers buys not only a pair of silk stockings but also:
- Expensive shoes to match the silk stockings.
- Expensive kid gloves.
- Two expensive magazines.
- An expensive lunch at a well-known restaurant.
- A show at the matinee.
The silk-stockings were the first step on Mrs. Sommers’ journey back to the person she was before she became the domesticated slaving mother she had become. This is Chopin’s realism at its best as we see the joy experienced by Mrs. Sommers as she wears her stockings, reads her expensive magazines, wears her neat kid gloves, etc. She is living for herself for the first time. Gone are her worries about her little brood’s upkeep who could be more than four in number. This story is very unlike the stories penned by Kate Chopin’s predecessors in which women were portrayed to be slaves of their husbands and children. Its form is vitalizing and lucid and gives us a bird’s eye view of how modern feminism in twentieth-century writing would develop from stories such as these.
Mrs. Sommers was giving in to her cravings and longings. She is not rationalizing or reasoning with herself at all. She can fit into the crowd in the restaurant, probably for two reasons:
- She knew how to conduct herself in a fancy restaurant from experience.
- She looked regal in her new silk stockings, kid gloves, and new boots that no one had any suspicion about her real social status.
The vast gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is evident, especially in crowded places like the restaurant and the theatre. There is a mention in the theatre that most women present at the theatre were there only to eat candy and show off their attire; very few people were there for the play itself. Mrs. Sommers changed personality mingles well with these well-off women who even share their candy with her. She blends in easily indicative that she had been part of this class of people in the past.
In prose of this era, a person like Mrs. Sommers would be a character without a definite personality. In splendid prose, Chopin gives a slight upper-class nature to homely Mrs. Sommer’s character. Otherwise, her character would seem faceless. Indeed, towards the end of the story, a man with keen, sharp eyes finds Mrs. Sommer’s face attractive and contemplates her face while traveling in the cable car. He tries to pin down what her face was trying to tell him. However, he fails, because the sophisticated upper-class woman has yet again drowned itself into the mire of motherhood and social responsibilities. At the end of the story, Mrs. Sommers is so ashamed of herself and the way she has conducted herself that she wishes the cable car to go on forever and for her never to return home. She may also have enjoyed herself and was praying that the day would go on and on and that she would never have to return to her old lifestyle. Mrs. Sommers’ real face tries to emerge but is drowned in the din of her many responsibilities. This story foreshadowed what future Modernist literature would look like in the years to come. It doesn’t give any solution but lays bare the facts of how Mrs. Sommers had spent her day shopping.
It is always a pleasure to read anything by Kate Chopin and evaluate her prose. The coincidence is that ‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’ was studied by me when I was around eight or nine years of age. I then went on to read more of Chopin’s literature from my school and college library. To know more about my life in books and with books, you can check out my memoir on Amazon titled Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. I’m sure you will find some quality books to add to your TBR list after reading this memoir. I hope to review more of Chopin’s short stories soon.
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