Kate Chopin, A pair of silk stockings (Review)
Over the years, the Library of America‘s (LOA) Story of the Week has published seven short stories by Kate Chopin, and I’ve posted on four of them. Now comes my fifth. It was actually published in February. I noted it, printed it out, but have only now found time to sit down and read it, and of course, I’m glad I did. It’s another little treasure.
Most of Chopin’s writing – including her most famous novel, The awakening, which I’ve read twice – offers commentary on the lives of women in late nineteenth century America. “A pair of silk stockings”, as you can probably tell from the title, doesn’t depart from this.
I enjoyed, as I usually do, LOA’s introductory notes. They are always succinct, yet hone in on something particularly relevant about the writer and the work. The notes to this story remind us that Chopin met with some resistance to her stories, both because of her themes and what literary historian Richard Gray calls her “subversive streak”. Go Chopin! However, what interested me most in these notes was something I hadn’t known, Chopin’s interest in Guy de Maupassant. I loved Maupassant’s short stories in my youth, and still have my little now-yellowing paperback of his stories. Chopin wrote about why she liked Maupassant, in 1896:
Here was life, not fiction; for where were the plots, the old fashioned mechanism and stage trapping that in a vague, unthinking way I had fancied were essential to the art of story making. Here was a man who had escaped from tradition and authority, who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes; and who, in a direct and simple way, told us what he saw.
LOA’s notes continue to say that Maupassant’s influence on her was substantial, particularly in his “emphasis on psychological character development” and in the use of “the surprise or disconcerting ending”. That’s certainly the case in “Desirée’s baby” (my review).
But today’s post is about “A pair of silk stockings”, which critics argue is one of her best short stories, one critic contending, in fact, that “it is one of the best pieces in turn-of-the-century American literature by anyone”. It is certainly an excellent read – a quiet slice of life with a little bite. The story concerns “Little Mrs Sommers” who suddenly finds herself with a little windfall of $15. We are not told the source of this money, because that’s not the point. The point is how it makes Mrs Sommers feel and what she does with it.
First, though, who is Mrs Sommers? We don’t know a lot about her, but enough. She has a few children – “the boys and Janie and Meg”. I’m sure Chopin is making a little point in naming the girls but not the boys. Anyhow, she is not well off, and has to scrimp and save to dress her children. She “knew the value of bargains” and could line up at sales and “elbow her way if need be” with the rest of them. She has not always been poor apparently, having once known “better days”, but she doesn’t think of those now:
She had no time—no second of time to devote to the past. The needs of the present absorbed her every faculty. A vision of the future like some dim, gaunt monster sometimes appalled her, but luckily to-morrow never comes.
So, this money, which has “given her a feeling of importance such as she had not enjoyed for years”, needs careful consideration to ensure she makes “proper and judicious use” of it. She doesn’t “wish … to do anything she might afterward regret”.
That’s the set up. As you can probably imagine, for all her careful planning, things work out very differently. The day she goes shopping she’s “faint and tired” having forgotten to eat lunch with all the “getting the children fed and the place righted, and preparing herself for the shopping bout”. She goes shopping – yes – but what she buys and does with her money is nothing like what she planned. Now I could tell you what she spends it on, without telling you the punch-line, but I don’t think I will. It’s only five pages, and is a good read – not only for what it tells us but for its insight into turn of the century American life.
And this last point is what critic Robert D Arner says we should see in the story. It’s not just a story about a poor, struggling woman, but about the whole society, one that is “caught between traditional ideas of feminine roles and the newly emergent American ‘culture of consumption’.” This is not the gut-wrenching Chopin of The Awakening or “Desirée’s baby” but it’s no less poignant for its recognition of the pressures women face in negotiating their lives in a world over which they have little control – not to mention a world in which the temptations to buy are starting to abound.
“A pair of silk stockings”
First published: Vogue, September 16, 1897
Available: Online at the Library of America