By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’ is a short story by the American writer Kate Chopin (1850-1904), written in 1896 and published in Vogue the following year. The story is about a married woman who comes into possession of fifteen dollars and ends up treating herself to new clothes, a meal in a restaurant, and a theatre show, when she had originally planned to spend the money on new clothes for her children.
You can read ‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Chopin’s story.
‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’: plot summary
Mrs Sommers, a married woman with several children, comes into some money. Although it is just fifteen dollars, she spends several days thinking about how best to use the money. She initially decides that she can use a dollar two from this small windfall to get one of her children better shoes that will last longer. She can buy some percale (a good-quality cotton) for blouses or ‘waists’ (shirts) for her children, as well as another gown for one of her daughters.
She is excited by the thought of her children looking smart in these new clothes and shoes. She is keen to seek out bargains in the shops and make every dollar go as far as it can possibly go. On this particular day, armed with her fifteen dollars, she has been so focused on spending the money on her children that she hasn’t even stopped to have some lunch.
As she is sitting in one of the shops, her gloveless hands accidentally touch the fine silk stockings on display. Seeing they have been reduced in the sale, Mrs Sommers decides to treat herself to them. She then goes and returns the cheaper cotton stockings she had bought. She does this unthinkingly, carried away with the wonderfully soft feel of the silk against her legs.
She then goes and buys some boots and some new gloves, telling the man who serves her that she doesn’t mind paying a few extra dollars for the best pair. She then buys some expensive magazines. Realising how hungry she is, she goes into a restaurant she had never dined in before and has a meal, with wine. She glances through one of the magazines she has bought, and enjoys her surroundings. When she has finished her meal, she leaves a tip for the water and she feels like a princess when he bows to her.
She notices a poster for the theatre and decides to take in an afternoon show, which she greatly enjoys. When she comes out of the theatre, it feels ‘like a dream ended.’ She waits for the cable car which will take her home, with the people around her little suspecting how, inside her mind, she is wishing that she never had to go home and that she could stay out like this forever.
‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’: analysis
Many of Kate Chopin’s stories are about married women, and even if her female protagonists are unmarried, they are defined by this feature of their lives: in ‘Regret’, for example, the main character is a fifty-year-old woman who has never married and comes to regret not having a family of her own. Chopin focuses on these married women to suggest how marriage restricts their freedoms and, in many cases, robs their lives of agency or any real enjoyment.
‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’ presents us with a married woman who is used to making sacrifices in order to provide for her children (how many children she has we cannot be sure, but the narrator mentions ‘the boys’ and two girls, ‘Janie and Mag’, implying at least four). She sometimes even forgoes lunch, as she does on the day the action of ‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’ takes place, because she simply forgets to stop and eat something, so busy is she ‘getting the children fed and the place righted’.
She and her husband (if he is still around – he is curiously absent from the story and isn’t even mentioned, so it’s possible Mrs Sommers is widowed) are not exactly rich. Fifteen dollars wasn’t exactly a fortune even in 1896 (though, as a point of interest, it is three times what Chopin was paid by Vogue for her story: yes, she earned just $5 from the story’s initial sale).
Yet it is clearly a game-changing amount of money for Mrs Sommers. She thinks carefully about how best to spend it so her children will benefit. But then the touch of the fine silk stockings in the department store lead her to do something she hasn’t done for a long time: put herself first and spend the money on her own pleasure rather than on the needs of her family.
Chopin implies that this is not some cold and calculated act, but as if she is almost in the grip of some consumerist mania. Indeed, it’s possible to analyse ‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’ as a commentary on American consumerism during this period, which saw the rise of the department store and the advertising of ‘while stocks last’ sales campaigns (Chopin wrote the story in April 1896 after seeing the department stores in her hometown of St Louis, Missouri announcing their Easter sales).
Note how Mrs Sommers is described as ‘not going through any acute mental process or reasoning with herself’ when she embarks on her shopping spree. Indeed, she ‘was not thinking at all.’ Chopin is not necessarily endorsing Mrs Sommers’ behaviour – not indulging her indulgence, we might say – but she is trying to highlight why a responsible and devoted mother so used to the pull of consumerism might get carried away when she rediscovers the pleasure to be found in treating herself to new things.
Chopin is at pains to contrast Mrs Sommers’ state at this moment (which is nevertheless described as a ‘mechanical impulse’, suggesting she is at the whim of consumerism) with the ‘laborious and fatiguing function’ which had dominated her life until now.
Or at least, her married life until now: for Chopin mentions that Mrs Sommers’ life, before she became Mrs Sommers, was quite different. Indeed, she had known ‘better days’, according to her neighbours, but she herself is so wrapped up in the present moment, looking after her brood of children, that she has no time to stop and reflect on how much her independence, freedom, and happiness have suffered since she married and had children.
Of course, to a degree this is what we expect: having children involves looking after people who are too young to look after themselves, and this involves a degree of sacrifice. But have women like Mrs Sommers been made to sacrifice too much? Note how sensory her spending spree is: it is instigated not by rational decision-making (as her other purchases, for her children, have been) but is instead prompted by the softness of the silk stockings she feels beneath her fingers.
Thereafter, she gives vent to all of the impulses and emotional outlets she has been repressing all of these years: luxury gloves, glossy magazines, a meal in a nice restaurant with fine wine and music, and laughing and crying at the theatre.
‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’ might be productively analysed alongside another story from this period, Willa Cather’s ‘A Wagner Matinée’ (1904), in which a woman returns to the city as a married woman and, after a trip to the opera, realises how much she lost when she got married and moved to the countryside.