Kate Chopin’s “A Pair of Silk Stockings” tells the story of Mrs. Sommers, a poor woman charged as the sole caretaker of her four children who experiences a sensuous awakening when shopping for her family. Published in 1897—a time when ideal womanhood was often synonymous with motherhood, resulting in the widespread belief that women must take full responsibility for childcare and housework—Chopin’s story explores the boundaries of traditional gender roles. While nineteenth-century social norms dictated that women embody purity and piousness, serving their husbands faithfully but harboring no ambitions or desires of their own, Mrs. Sommers gives in to temptation with almost reckless abandon—indulging in her femininity, succumbing to her desires, and escaping the arduous confines of her household for the day. Through the excitement, pleasure and satisfaction that Mrs. Sommers enjoys in the story, Chopin illustrates the pleasure and fulfilment women can experience when freed from the confines of marriage and motherhood.
Upon finding herself the “unexpected possessor of fifteen dollars,” Mrs. Sommers’s thoughts immediately turn toward how she can use this windfall to support her family—quickly establishing the primacy of the role of motherhood in her life. She methodically lays out a plan for the distribution of the funds between her children. Paying an extra “dollar or two” for Janie’s shoes “would ensure their lasting an appreciable time longer than they usually did,” while buying new “shirt waists” means she won’t have to patch up the old ones. She adds two pairs of stockings a piece to her mental list—enthusiastically noting “what darning that would save for a while!”—as well as a pretty gown for Mag and caps for all four children. Mrs. Sommers is “excited” by “the vision of her little brood looking fresh and dainty and new for once in their lives,” at once implying the family’s relative poverty and her desire to come across as a capable caretaker. Her focus on how these purchases will ease her workload, meanwhile, implies that Mrs. Sommers does not exactly revel in having her days devoted to menial tasks like darning stockings and patching shirts.
Such domestic labor has clearly taken its toll on Mrs. Sommers. Having forgotten to eat lunch in the chaos of “getting the children fed and the place righted,” she is weak, faint, and fatigued when seating herself at an empty counter in a clothing store “to gather her strength and courage” before beginning her shopping. Mrs. Sommers is a depleted woman, but she finds strength when seduced by a pair of silk stockings. While sitting at the counter, Mrs. Sommers absent-mindedly encounters “something very soothing and pleasant to touch.” As if rousing her from sleep or numbness, the silk stockings appeal to her senses and seduce her into an imprudent purchase. As the stockings “glisten” and “glide serpent-like through her fingers,” the unmistakable allusion to the Bible’s creation story positions the stockings as a sinful temptation. However, the question of buying the silk stockings is not a consequential moral dilemma, but rather a pitiful reminder of the constraints placed upon poor women like Mrs. Sommers, who are obliged to devote their ever-depleting resources—both financial and emotional—to others. Presented with this temptation, “two hectic blotches” appear immediately upon Mrs. Sommers’ previously pale cheeks. This redness might represent sin, whereby Mrs. Sommers’s now sullied paleness symbolises the corruption of her pure and pious womanhood. On the other hand, her blush might signify a rush of desire—a new and exciting sensation that Mrs. Sommers eventually embraces. The implicit suggestions of female sexuality throughout descriptions of the shopping spree present it as a moment of sensual awakening for Mrs. Sommers. Ultimately, Mrs. Sommers’s dwindling energy is almost immediately replenished through this experience, bringing color to her cheeks and a spring to her step—underscoring the story’s insistence that women are capable of more, and indeed require more, than traditional feminine domesticity.
One might expect Mrs. Sommers to be punished for her greed—for her to become an allegory warning against the dangers of sinful and selfish women—but no such twist ensues. Chopin describes the scenes that follow with an abundance of sensuous language, undermining nineteenth-century expectations of womanly piousness by presenting Mrs. Sommers’s shopping as an act of self-fulfilment, rather than as a fall from grace. Mrs. Sommers remains loyal to her newly awakened desires and hungrily continues her search for “satisfaction.” Taking “a rest” from all that is “laborious and fatiguing,” Mrs. Sommers “abandoned herself” to an “impulse that directed her actions and freed her of responsibility.” The pleasure-seeking continues when Mrs. Sommers ventures out of the shop, where, rather than met with the ridicule she had expected, she blends in seamlessly with the “well-dressed multitude.” In the restaurant, no one suspects her of belonging to an inferior social class, and in the theater, she is warmly accepted by a group of “brilliantly dressed women,” who share their candy with her. The theater scene becomes a metaphor for Mrs. Sommers’s self-fulfilment. Her experiences have awakened long-buried feelings of desire, freeing her from normal subservience to domestic duties, if just for an afternoon, and placing her center-stage in her own narrative.
Mrs. Sommers seems to be rewarded (she is granted a small fortune, after all) for being dutiful and loyal to her family. What she discovers, however, is far more thrilling than motherhood. Through the excitement and satisfaction that Mrs. Sommers enjoys in the story, Chopin explores feminine pleasure at a time when women’s desires were not widely acknowledged, never mind encouraged. At the story’s close, Mrs. Sommers—fed, replenished, and freshly clothed—begins her return home in the cable car. After her day’s adventures, she longs for her journey to “go on and on with her forever,” revealing her desire to remain free from the confines of domesticity, and to live a more independent, sensuous life.
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Women and Gender Roles Quotes in A Pair of Silk Stockings
It seemed to her a very large amount of money, and the way in which it stuffed and bulged her worn old porte-monnaie gave her a feeling of importance such as she had not enjoyed for years.
For a day or two she walked about apparently in a dreamy state, but really absorbed in speculation and calculation. She did not wish to act hastily, to do anything she might afterward regret.
The neighbors sometimes talked of certain “better days” that little Mrs. Sommers had known before she had ever thought of being Mrs. Sommers. She herself indulged in no such morbid retrospection. She had no time—no second of time to devote to the past.
A vision of the future like some dim, gaunt monster sometimes appalled her, but luckily to-morrow never comes.
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.
She was not thinking at all. She seemed for the time to be taking a rest from that laborious and fatiguing function and to have abandoned herself to some mechanical impulse that directed her actions and freed her of responsibility.
The play was over, the music ceased, the crowd filed out. It was like a dream ended.