A Pair of Silk Stockings by Kate Chopin, 1897

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by Kate Chopin, 1897

Born in 1851 in Saint Louis but a resident of Louisiana after her marriage, Kate Chopin began writing after her husband's death in 1882. Drawing on what she had learned from wide reading, particularly of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Sarah Orne Jewett, and from translating stories by Guy de Maupassant, she was able to support herself and her six children by publishing stories in leading magazines. She was successful so long as her stories were the expected local color, exotic accounts of life in the Creole culture of the south.

In 1894, after Chopin had published the popular Bayou Folk, her first collection of short fiction, her themes began to change subtly. "A Pair of Silk Stockings" illustrates her ability to draw women characters so that they are recognizable but also more than stereotypes. Here the protagonist clearly feels a conflict in what appears to be her dutiful performance of daily responsibilities. A young woman with four children, "little" Mrs. Sommers has a windfall of $15, and she plans a day of shopping for her children's clothes. But unexpectedly, and the structure of Chopin's story shows how unexpected her change of direction is, Mrs. Sommers begins buying things for herself.

Chopin's narrative emphasizes the woman's lack of plan by stressing how long it has been since she has had anything for herself and how difficult her life has been in providing for the children. Wearied from the interminable struggle, Mrs. Sommers—who is never given any name except identification by her role in society—sits down at a counter and finds that her hand has fallen on a pile of soft silk stockings. Chopin makes the reader feel the sensation and the joy it brings the deprived woman:

By degrees she grew aware that her hand had encountered something very soothing, very pleasant to touch. She looked down to see that her hand lay upon a pile of silk stockings….a young girl who stood behind the counter asked her if she wished to examine their line of silk hosiery. She smiled, just as if she had been asked to inspect a tiara of diamonds with the ultimate view of purchasing it. But she went on feeling the soft, sheeny luxurious things—with both hands now, holding them up to see them glisten, and to feel them glide serpent-like through her fingers.

Chopin's marvelous description, the sensuality of the feeling of the fabric pushing beyond known language ("sheeny"), is echoed a few paragraphs later as Mrs. Sommers chooses a pair from among lush colors and then goes to the ladies' room to put the stockings on in place of her cotton ones. Through Chopin's details the reader is completely won to the protagonist's side. This woman needs this luxury. And the matter-of-fact way in which Chopin continues the story—with Mrs. Sommers next buying herself boots, gloves, high-priced magazines, an expensive lunch, and a ticket to a matinee—is a masterful nod to the psychological accuracy of the woman in need. The author says plainly, "She was not thinking at all. She seemed for the time to be taking a rest from that laborious and fatiguing function [of mothering] and [to] have abandoned herself to some mechanical impulse that directed her actions and freed her of responsibility. How good was the touch of the raw silk to her flesh."

Chopin's shift from a plot-oriented narrative to an emphasis on the inner motivation of her character was as important as her abandonment of the details of local color writing. There is so little specific description of place in "A Pair of Silk Stockings" that Mrs. Sommers's story becomes everywoman's, and her urgency and lack of guilt become feelings any reader understands. With the succinct brilliance of this characterization Chopin finds a way to intrigue readers, suggesting even as they read the ostensibly simply story that women's lives—domestic and predictable as they may seem—are as filled with drama as the most adventurous of men's. It is truly a revisionist narrative.

The story also works differently from most turn-of-the-century short fiction. Rather than relying on plot to keep the reader attentive, Chopin abandons any pretense of the formulaic structure of rising action, climax, and denouement. In fact, she begins the story with the climax, the point at which Mrs. Sommers chooses to buy the silk stockings for herself. And she saves the story from a predictable close with another stroke of brilliant writing. Mrs. Sommers, still defined by the word "little," still modest in her assumptions and in her role, attracts the attention of a male observer on the cable car, a man whose "keen eyes" are bemused by an expression in the woman's face that he cannot decipher. Rather than having Mrs. Sommers be suffused with satisfaction, with the satiety that a day of pleasure can bring, Chopin creates an ambiguity in her character that opens rather than closes the story at the end. She writes that the authoritative male observer has noticed the woman's "poignant wish, a powerful longing that the cable car would never stop anywhere, but go on and on with her forever."

In this relinquishment of the importance of mothering, in Mrs. Sommers's willingness to give up her duty and to leave her place in life, Chopin suggests questions about women's roles that had to bother her readers. Much as she did in "The Story of an Hour," her 1894 narrative of a woman who dies when she learns that her husband has lived through a train accident, Chopin here reverses the reader's expectations—that Mrs. Sommers would find pleasure tinged with guilt when her children realized that she had spent the money on herself.

When Chopin followed her inclination to tell the truth about women's lives and published her controversial The Awakening in 1899, she brought a burst of clarity to the lives and the work of many women writers. When they saw how much Chopin could achieve through the ambivalent narrative of Edna Pontellier—a woman who demanded to be a sentient, sexual person as well as a wife and mother—women's writing took a new turn, one expressly away from the narrative conventions of mainstream male fiction.

—Linda Wagner-Martin

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A Pair of Silk Stockings by Kate Chopin, 1897

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