A Pair of Silk Stockings by Kate Chopin
In A Pair of Silk Stockings by Kate Chopin we have the theme of responsibility, escape, independence, freedom, identity, consumerism and temptation. Set in the 1890s the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Chopin may be exploring the theme of responsibility and identity. By telling the reader that Mrs Sommers intends to spend the majority of the fifteen dollars on shoes and clothes for her children not only is Chopin suggesting that Mrs Sommers is aware that she has a responsibility for the care and upbringing of her children but it is also possible that Chopin is suggesting that Mrs Sommers also identifies herself as a mother first, rather than as an individual. Though later in the story the reader realises that it is this sense of identity which is challenged when Mrs Sommers instead of spending the fifteen dollars on her children ends up spending the money on herself. It is also interesting that there is no mention of a Mr Sommers in the story. This may be important as though it is possible that Mrs Sommers is a widow it is more likely that by making no mention of a husband Chopin is further suggesting that women in general (at the time the story was written) were responsible for the care and upbringing of their children. Rather than marriage or parenthood being seen as a partnership with both the male and female sharing responsibility Chopin may be suggesting that for the majority of women their role in life was to look after their children rather than share an equal footing within a marriage.
The fact that Mrs Sommers neighbours ‘talked of certain better days’ for Mrs Sommers before she became a married woman may also be important as it suggests that prior to getting married Mrs Sommers lived a different (if not improved) life than the life she now finds herself living. It is possible that Chopin by introducing this line into the story is also suggesting that not all women, when they got married, found that their circumstances had improved. If anything it would appear that the opposite has happened for Mrs Sommers and as such the circumstances she finds herself in (poverty) may be the trigger for her to decide to escape, at least for one day, from the life she now lives.
Chopin may also be exploring the theme of consumerism. Though some critics may suggest that Mrs Sommers has lost control of herself and acted selfishly by spending her day buying shoes and clothes for herself and focusing on herself rather that doing as she had intended and buying clothes for her children it is possible that Chopin is suggesting that for many people (including Mrs Sommers) the power or draw of consumerism can overwhelm or even tempt an individual. However just as Mrs Sommers spends her day buying clothes for herself, in the belief that it will improve her life, the freedom or happiness she may feel is short lived and does not last. Chopin may also be suggesting that no matter how much money an individual spends or what they may buy for the majority of people it will not change their circumstances which appears to be the case for Mrs Sommers. Despite Mrs Sommers longing to return to a previous life, without responsibilities to others, the reader is aware that very little actually changes for her. In essence Mrs Sommers’ life has not changed in the long term. She remains the same person, at least in society’s eyes, with responsibilities to her children (and possibly her husband).
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. By focusing on the fifteen dollars Chopin may be suggesting that money has the power or ability to enhance an individual’s appraisal of themselves, to boost their self-esteem and confidence, though the realities of their life may be very different. However just as any changes through the pursuit of consumerism are short lived likewise Chopin may be suggesting that money too and a person’s appraisal of themselves through the purchasing power of money may also be short lived. The restaurant and theatre may also be symbolically significant as they are both environments to which Mrs Sommers is unaccustomed to and provide her with an avenue of escape. For a brief moment Mrs Sommers is able to forget about her life and escape into a world which is very much different to the world she finds herself in. By also describing the package of silk stockings as being ‘very small’ when Mrs Sommers puts the stockings into her shopping bag Chopin may be suggesting at least symbolically that despite Mrs Sommers’ belief that the stockings will make a difference in her life the reality is in fact very different. Just as the package is described as very small so too are the changes that occur in Mrs Sommers’ life.
The ending of the story is also interesting. As Mrs Sommers is waiting for the cable car to arrive the reader is given a slight insight into how she wishes her life could be. By telling the reader that Mrs Sommers had ‘a poignant wish, a powerful longing that the cable car would never stop anywhere, but go on and on with her forever’ Chopin may be highlighting Mrs Sommers’ desire to continue to escape from the world she finds herself in (struggling and in poverty) and return to a life that she can still remember when she had her own independence and freedom. It may also be significant that the man who is looking at Mrs Sommers while she is waiting for the cable car is described as being ‘puzzled.’ It is possible that just as the male clerk in the store ‘could not make her out,’ Chopin is suggesting that men or society in general is unable to understand women and rather than seeing women as independent individuals as Mrs Sommers would like to see herself, society continues to see women as either wives or mothers and that their responsibilities lie within the family rather than allowing women the opportunity to be both an individual and a mother.