For reasons not revealed, Mrs. Sommers finds herself in possession of fifteen dollars. For poor, “little Mrs. Sommers,” this seems like a large sum of money, and she enjoys the delightful “feeling of importance” that it grants her—a feeling that “she ha[s] not enjoyed for years.”
The opening reveals that Mrs. Sommers is of central importance to this story. There is no account of place or time, or even an explanation of where she got the money—instead, the story is squarely focused on her thoughts and feelings. At first glance, Mrs. Sommers seems shallow, as she is preoccupied with money and self-importance. However, the admission that she is a woman of little means who has not felt significant or meaningful for many years paints her as a sympathetic character.
Mrs. Sommers is completely consumed by the question of how to spend her small windfall. “She did not wish to act hastily, to do anything she might afterward regret”; instead, she wants to spend her money wisely and lies awake at night making “calculation[s].” Eventually, she settles upon her final shopping list, devoted entirely to items for her children, Janie, Mag, and the boys. She plans to find enough bargains to stretch the fifteen dollars as far as she can, enabling her to buy a gown, new shoes, shirt waists, stockings, caps and sailor-hats, all for her children. Mrs. Sommers is excited by the idea of saving herself some darning, patching, and mending, and she delights at the thought of seeing her children adorned in quality clothes for “once in their lives.”
Mrs. Sommers seems like a modest and sensible woman; she is dedicated to her family and longs to provide the best for her children. She is clearly quite stretched by her chores and duties because she is thrilled by the idea of reducing her workload a little. Accomplished in all the feminine skills necessary for the successful running of a household, and selflessly committed to the needs of her family above her own, Mrs. Sommers perfectly embodies the late nineteenth-century social vision of working-class domesticity.
The neighbors like to gossip about Mrs. Sommers’s past—back when she enjoyed “better days,” prior to getting married to Mr. Sommers. Mrs. Sommers, however, does not like to think of the past, or indeed of the future, and instead dedicates all her time and energy to completing her duties as best she can.
Mrs. Sommers’s distaste for thinking about the past suggests that she doesn’t want to think about the loss that she has endured. By suggesting that Mrs. Sommers has had to sacrifice the access she once had to a plush life, Chopin highlights the precariousness of women’s lives in the late nineteenth-century. Women rarely inherited family wealth, and were often pressured into unhappy marriages in order to secure their futures.
Mrs. Sommers is usually a skillful and tenacious shopper, able to “elbow her way” through stores and find the best sales. Today, however, she is faint when she arrives at the department store to begin her shopping trip. During the busy morning of chores and caring for her children, she has forgotten to eat, leaving her feeble and fatigued. Regardless, she attempts “to gather strength and courage to charge through an eager multitude that was besieging breast-works of shirting and figured lawn.”
The beginning of the shopping trip reveals the extent to which married life is taking its toll on Mrs. Sommers. She is a depleted woman, exhausted by the emotional and physical demands of motherhood and family life. Meanwhile, the militarized language likens Mrs. Sommers and her forthcoming shopping trip to a soldier preparing for battle. Mrs. Sommers approaches bargain hunting as if it were an exhausting fight; it requires methodical planning, strategy, and great mental and physical strength. For poor women like Mrs. Sommers, budget constraints make these extreme measures necessary.
As she braces herself to begin shopping, Mrs. Sommers accidentally brushes her hand against a pair of silk stockings. Although the stockings are on sale (marked down from $2.50 to $1.98), they are still beyond Mrs. Sommers’s strict budget. However, as she feels the stockings “glide serpent-like through her fingers,” two “hectic blotches” rise to her cheeks, and she quickly purchases a black pair of stockings in her size from the shop assistant.
This climactic moment symbolizes an important shift in Mrs. Sommers as she begins to escape from the confines of her ordinary life. This turning point also marks a sort of sensual awakening of Mrs. Sommers’s innermost desires. Despite her better judgment, she cannot resist the beauty of the stockings and eventually gives into temptation. The simile here, likening the stockings to a serpent, is a stark allusion to the account of original sin in the Bible’s creation story, whereby a serpent entices Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in Eden. Unlike Eve, however, who is punished and shamed for her deviance, Chopin seems to reward Mrs. Sommers by presenting the stockings as the key to unlocking her long-repressed desires. Modest, humble, virtuous Mrs. Sommers experiences an exciting rush of desire, embodied by the feverish blush adorning her cheeks. The sensuous language surrounding the stockings connotes female sexuality, a concept that nineteenth-century society rejected as offensive and immoral. By permitting Mrs. Sommers to give into temptation, Chopin counters this prevalent belief and suggests that women can —and should— embrace pleasure and value their own wants and needs above those of their husbands.
Instead of visiting the “bargain counter,” Mrs. Sommers promptly goes to the dressing room to put on her new silk stockings. As she does so, she experiences a strange, exciting sensation. For the first time, perhaps in years, she escapes from the burden of thinking, planning, or serving others. Instead of “reasoning with herself” or trying to discern why she had decided to buy the stockings, she simply swaps her old cotton stockings for her beautiful new ones and then relaxes in a cushioned chair, enjoying the feeling of silk on her skin.
Mrs. Sommers’s unorthodox behavior—of impatiently changing her stockings right then and there in the store—illustrates her newfound craving for self-gratification. In an extension of the serpent imagery connected with the silk stockings, here Mrs. Sommers peels off her old stockings, as if shedding the skin of her old identity. Her transformation is complete when she puts on her new silk stockings. The simple act of taking a moment to relax in a comfortable chair symbolizes how she is now motivated not by the needs and expectations of others, but by her own pleasure.
Stuffing her old stockings in her bag, Mrs. Sommers makes a beeline for the shoe department. The clerk there is surprised by the combination of her luxurious silk stockings and otherwise shabby appearance, but Mrs. Sommers is in a good mood, and is immune to his judgment. She begins to instruct him in a “fastidious” manner, bossing him around until she finds the perfect pair of “polished, pointed-tipped boots.” When looking at her freshly clad feet, she finds it hard to believe that they are hers, but admires their beauty nonetheless. The boots are pricier than what she is usually willing to pay for shoes, but “she did not mind the difference […] as long as she got what she desired.”
Mrs. Sommers enjoys a newfound sense of self-confidence as she exerts the authority afforded to her through her spending power over the clerk. However, the fact that she still finds it difficult to recognize her own beauty—having trouble believing that her fashionably clad feet truly belong to her—reveals her low self-worth. In this passage, Chopin interrogates the seductive appeal of consumerism, which promises women a certain brand of femininity, self-expression, and social esteem, if they can only keep up with the latest fashion trends.
Mrs. Sommers then thinks of how long it’s been since she’s purchased new gloves, and promptly visits the glove counter to be fitted for a new pair. After, she wanders to a magazine stand down the block. She purchases two expensive magazines, “such as she had been accustomed to read in the days when she had been accustomed to other pleasant things.” Mrs. Sommers then carries her unwrapped magazines in her arms and hikes up her skirt as she crosses the street. Her purchases make her feel like she is a member of the “well-dressed multitude.”
The deceptive and dissatisfying nature of American consumerism is revealed when it becomes clear that Mrs. Sommers is not finding lasting happiness in her purchases. Instead, she has been lured into parting with her precious dollars by the fleeting thrill she receives with each purchase. Further, it becomes clear that Mrs. Sommers carries her magazines without wrappings and hikes up her skirt to reveal her boots and stockings so that everyone can see her luxurious purchases; this suggests that approval and acceptance are motivating factors behind her imprudent behavior. Note that she does not seek approval from men, but is rather more concerned with fitting in with fashionable women and, more broadly, the social class of the “well-dressed multitude.”
Having not eaten since her bout of faintness earlier in the day, Mrs. Sommers feels incredibly hungry all of a sudden. Under normal circumstances, she would usually ignore her hunger until she got home and then scrape together a meal from what food she had on hand, “But the impulse that was guiding her would not suffer her to entertain any such thought.” She spots a restaurant that she has never entered, but often admired from the outside. She feels uncertain about entering the restaurant and fears the exclusion or ridicule she might face from the fashionable clientele inside, but her entrance goes unnoticed.
The image of Mrs. Sommers outside of the restaurant, looking in, is a poignant reminder of her position as an outsider. Mrs. Sommers longs to belong to the fashionable middle class but has not recently had the means—or the confidence—to enter their glamorous world. However, her external transformation, and the growing self-assurance it has brought her, culminates in her bold decision to enter the restaurant.
Once seated at her own table, Mrs. Sommers claims to “not want a profusion,” but nonetheless orders a fine feast. Following her oysters and lamp chop, she orders dessert, wine, and a coffee, all the while flipping idly through one of her new magazines. She finds the food and atmosphere to be “very agreeable” and enjoys the feeling of her silk stockings on her toes. When Mrs. Sommers leaves a tip for her attentive waiter, he bows to her as if she were some splendid member of the royal family.
Mrs. Sommers’s excessive and leisurely lunch is a far cry from her ordinary, modest, and busy life, and she savors every moment of it. The allusion to the royal family suggests that Mrs. Sommers feels acknowledged and admired. However, her newfound social acceptance is conditional; as she orders dish after dish at the restaurant, readers are reminded that her budget must surely soon reach its limits, and that her performance is unsustainable.
Mrs. Sommers has enough money for one last splurge. She spots a poster advertising a matinee and, succumbing to this latest “temptation,” she heads straight for the theater. Once inside, she is asked to take her seat beside a group of fashionable ladies, “who [have] gone there to kill time and eat candy and display their gaudy attire.” Among those in the audience, there is no one quite like Mrs. Sommers, who relishes every moment of the experience in a state of complete awe. An ostentatious woman dressed in “gaudy” clothes shares her candy with Mrs. Sommers as they chat, laugh, and weep together during the show.
Mrs. Sommers’s new class signifiers—her magazines, clothes, and presence in the theater—have bought her social capital. It is clear that the well-dressed women have assumed that Mrs. Sommers belongs to their social set, but that her acceptance hangs precariously on her outer appearance and behavior. Chopin exposes the absurdity of American consumerism, and the superficiality of the social class system, when Mrs. Sommers (a poor, working-class nobody), is able to rub shoulders with the wealthy and fashionable without them realizing her true identity. Had this been an ordinary day for Mrs. Sommers, she would have presumably faced judgment and rejection from the very same woman who now shares her sweets with Mrs. Sommers. Although Mrs. Sommers enjoys her theater experience with the women, her sense of belonging is ultimately an illusion.
As the play ends, Mrs. Sommers feels as if “a dream ended.” She files out of the theater and walks alone towards a cable car. A man watches Mrs. Sommers, observing her paleness, her figure, and her clothes. The man on the cable car is puzzled by Mrs. Sommers and is unable to draw any conclusions about her. Meanwhile, Mrs. Sommers longs desperately for the cable car to “go on and on with her forever” instead of pausing at its scheduled stops.
The cable car voyeur tries desperately to understand Mrs. Sommers, reducing her to her body and exterior appearance. Mrs. Sommers pays no notice of him, however, as she is far busier dreading her inevitable return home. She will shortly be required to resume her household duties and devote herself once more to her exhausting responsibilities, a life that is perhaps no longer enough for her after her day of luxury.