The male gaze refers to the act of presenting women from a masculine perspective, a patriarchal form of representation that has dominated literary and artistic works throughout history. Due to the hostile public reception of women writers throughout the early nineteenth-century, it was not uncommon for them to publish their works under male pseudonyms. By the end of the century, however, writers like Kate Chopin were being openly published (although not without some outrage), and they were able to challenge traditional portrayals of women through their writing. While “A Pair of Silk Stockings” might appear to be a silly little tale about a silly little woman doing her shopping, Chopin’s story—about one woman’s pursuit of freedom and fulfilment—is a bold assertion about women’s need for agency, free from the scrutiny of men.
Despite the curious presence of male characters in “A Pair of Silk Stockings,” who watch, observe, and monitor Mrs. Sommers and her behavior, the story is unmistakably dedicated to her and her subjectivity alone. The only named male character is Mr. Sommers, whom the reader never actually meets, and the three other men in the story—the clerk, the waiter, and the man on the cable car—remain unnamed. While placed firmly in the center of her own narrative, through small acts of self-assurance, Mrs. Sommers is able to avert the male gaze and subvert the expectations of the men around her.
Mrs. Sommers challenges men’s initial perceptions of her and refuses to succumb to their judgement. Men act as voyeurs in the story, present only to judge Mrs. Sommers and act as a reminder that she is only a visitor in the male-dominated public sphere, passing through to complete her errands, but ultimately doomed to return home, where she belongs. Mrs. Sommers’s first encounter with a man is with that of the clerk in the shoe department. He is unable to “make her out” when he sees her shabby shoes with her elegant pair of silk stockings. While this confrontation is brief, it is clearly distinct from that of the female assistant, who shares a moment of admiration with Mrs. Sommers. Here, the clerk stands in as a symbol of patriarchal control as his judgement threatens to ruin Mrs. Sommers’s outing. However, refusing to be discouraged, Mrs. Sommers continues her shop in a “fastidious” manner. Mrs. Sommers instructs the “young fellow who served her,” thus undermining the gendered power dynamic and taking control of the situation for herself. Similarly, while traveling home on the cable car, “a man with keen eyes” literally surveils her. This instance of the male gaze risks rendering Mrs. Sommers an object under his watch, but in fact, he is unable to “decipher what he saw.” Again, Mrs. Sommers wields the power here because her true identity remains unclear to the voyeur. Even while inhabiting the public sphere, Mrs. Sommers maintains a degree of privacy and of agency.
Mrs. Sommers is not motivated by male approval, and she rejects society’s expectations of her. Although it is not clear if Mr. Sommers is still alive or not, given the social position of lower-class women at the time, it is certainly Mrs. Sommers’s responsibility to take care of her children’s clothes, before adorning herself in fashionable items. That she fails to accomplish this task illustrates that she has, at least to some degree, rejected her marital obligations. While occupying the private realm, her thoughts are wholly wedded to her familial responsibilities, but once she passes into the public sphere, she gains the confidence and self-assurance needed to dedicate the afternoon to herself. Indeed, while she does choose items that are traditionally beautiful and feminine, it is unlikely that any of her purchases are carried out in search of male approval, since her husband is not mentioned once during the shopping spree. Rather, Mrs. Sommers’s purchases are for herself and for the feeling of confidence she gains through them. Mrs. Sommers undermines the patriarchal Victorian doctrine of “separate spheres” when she neglects her womanly duties and instead moves through a male-dominated public space wholly undeterred by men’s disapproval.
However, despite her small rebellions and subversions, the male gaze— and indeed male dominance—remains omnipresent in Mrs. Sommers’s world. Mrs. Sommers’s name—inherited from her husband—dictates her class position in society. The reader learns early on in the text that Mrs. Sommers had enjoyed a higher social standing before “she had ever thought of being Mrs. Sommers.” Despite dedicating the day to herself and her own needs and wants, Mrs. Sommers’s first name is never revealed, reminding the reader that she remains defined by her husband’s class position, her marital status, and, in turn, her marital obligations. Mrs. Sommers’s sojourn into the “male sphere” might represent the growing freedoms women experienced in the late nineteenth-century, but the fact that she has to return home at the story’s close, with no material improvement to her life, serves as a reminder that women were still largely restricted by traditional gender roles. The omnipresence of the male gaze—evident in the story through the men who literally watch Mrs. Sommers as she goes about her business—reveals the pervasiveness of patriarchal control within women’s lives.
Although Mrs. Sommers is described as “little” three times throughout the text—an adjective used to depict her as weak, feminine, and timid—through small acts of defiance, she is able to challenge others’ perceptions of her. By commanding the male clerk, bewildering the cable car voyeur, and ignoring her familial duties, Mrs. Sommers tries to avert the male gaze and reject society’s expectations of her. In a way, the actions of Mrs. Sommers, who ventures out into the public sphere and takes control of her own story for perhaps the first time in her life, mirrors that of Chopin herself, who had to endure the harsh ridicule of public life, in an unequivocally male dominated industry, in order to pursue her own ambitions. The fact that Mrs. Sommers has to eschew men’s judgment and suspicion in the first place, however, illustrates the extent to which nineteenth-century women were restricted in society.