Kate Chopin's Short Stories Summary and Analysis
by Kate Chopin
"A Pair of Silk Stockings"
Little Mrs. Sommers unexpectedly acquires fifteen dollars, which seems like a large amount to her. Feeling important and wealthy, she considers how to invest her money, feeling that she must carefully allocate her funds. During the night, she thinks of a sensible use for the money.
She determines that she should spend a dollar or two extra for Janie's shoes, so that they will last longer and be of better quality, and she plans to buy some fabric for her children's clothing. After that, she will still have enough money for new stockings and hats for everyone, which pleases her because her children will have new clothing for the first time in a while. Mrs. Sommers used to have more money long ago, before her marriage, but she does not worry about the past or the future, focusing mostly on the present.
Mrs. Sommers is accustomed to bargaining, but today she is tired and forgets to eat lunch prior to shopping. While sitting on a stool to rest before her shopping, she realizes that her hand has brushed against a pair of two-dollar silk stockings. She continues to feel the luxurious fabric and asks the shop girl for a pair in her size.
After choosing a black pair of stockings, Mrs. Sommers buys them and goes directly to the ladies' waiting room to change. For once, she abandons thinking about responsibility or about why she is so satisfied at her purchase. She sits in the room for a while, reveling in her stockings, before going to the shoe department, where she tries to find a pair of shoes to suit her stockings.
She pays for a stylish pair of boots, although they cost a dollar or two more than her usual shoes, and she then goes to the glove counter. She has not been fitted with gloves for a long time because they are too expensive, but she takes pleasure in the experience. She also buys two expensive magazines such as those that she used to read long ago, and she enjoys a new feeling of assurance in her new clothes.
Hungry, she decides against her usual approach, which is to wait until she returns home and then find a bit of food. Instead, she follows her impulse and goes to a nice restaurant, where she has a small, tasty meal as she takes off her gloves and reads her magazine, sipping her wine. No one looks at her askance, and not minding the price, Mrs. Sommers even leaves a tip for the waiter as she leaves.
She next enters a theater to watch a play. Many of the people are at the theater primarily to enjoy the play, but Mrs. Sommers absorbs the entire experience. Afterward, Mrs. Sommers waits for a cable car to take her home, and the man opposite her studies her expression. Bemused, he sees nothing and does not discern her desire for the cable car to keep going forever and never stop.
In "A Pair of Silk Stockings," Little Mrs. Sommers faces a minor dilemma that eventually becomes a conscious expression of her desire to return to a past that she can no longer have, reflecting her subconscious craving for the autonomy and independence that she does not have while under the pressures of poverty. The nostalgic desire to reclaim past grandeur recalls the dilemma of Ma'ame Pélagie in Chopin's eponymous short story, although Ma'ame Pélagie lives in the past and sacrifices it for the present whereas Mrs. Sommers lives in the present and temporarily leaves her reality in order to recall her past. Mrs. Sommers does not merely aspire to wealth in the manner of those who have never had money; instead, as Mrs. Sommers's neighbors note, she has in fact seen better days and intuitively equates her youth with simple luxuries such as silk stockings and kid gloves.
The second element of Mrs. Sommers's motivation for her impulse purchases relates to her need to assert personal autonomy. As Chopin establishes at the beginning of the story, Mrs. Sommers has several children to feed and clothe, and her first thoughts for spending her money come directly from the need to scrimp and save every scrap of her money. Although fifteen dollars had a great deal of purchasing power in the 1890s, much more than it would have today, it was not a significant amount of money for the long term. The indication that Mrs. Sommers cannot truly afford to spend it on luxury items suggests that she is greatly constricted in her actions by the requirements of minimum subsistence to which she is now reduced. Thus, Mrs. Sommers's purchase of silk stockings, a plain symbol of relatively luxurious abundance, may be interpreted as her attempt to deny the limits characterizing her worldly situation.
If Mrs. Sommers's excesses are a refutation of the powerlessness caused by her lack of wealth, then the manner in which she succumbs to temptation is ironic because Chopin's narration suggests that her decision to make her purchases is not made entirely by choice. Whereas she actively plans to buy hats and clothes for her children, Chopin describes her as "not thinking at all" after putting on her stockings. The tone of the narration is distant and dreamy, with a simple description of Mrs. Sommers's actions and limited discussion of her motivations. As a result, the protagonist seems to hold even less control over her behavior when indulging herself than when the lack of money is the deciding factor.
The readiness with which Mrs. Sommers gives in to temptation might seem at first glance to be a sign of succumbing or exhaustion in the face of suppressed consumerism. Certainly, Mrs. Sommers' lack of food and subsequent fatigue provide the impetus for her initial acquisition of the silk stockings. Chopin's narration, however, does not leave the impression of a woman who is weak and easily swayed. Instead, Mrs. Sommers is not condemned and does not condemn herself for indulging herself and providing a day of respite from her difficult life. Even when she returns by cable car to her home, she shows no regret for her lack of fiscal control and exhibits only a wish to continue her borrowed life. It seems that her dominant motivation for giving in is not the crass joy of shopping but, as in so many of Chopin's stories, a deeply held urge toward freedom, indulged here by releasing herself, however briefly, from the bonds of relative poverty.
Although the end of "A Pair of Silk Stockings" does not end with Mrs. Sommers in a position that is significantly worse than that in which she commenced the story, it still bears an element of tragedy and loss. Fifteen dollars has been enough to bring Mrs. Sommers back to her past and to give her an evanescent feeling of control, but it does not suffice to change her basic situation. Although the purchases made by Mrs. Sommers will remain with her until they wear out, almost all of the freedom that she enjoyed will disappear once she leaves the cable car, and she will be left again with nothing but memories and unfulfilled desires.
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