In a moment of weakness (perhaps because Kate Chopin is a writer entirely new to me) I decided to seek out other interpretations of the short story A Pair of Silk Stockings only to encounter the idea that it is a critique of consumerism (which, if nothing else, would seem a little ahead of its time in 1896, although amusing considering it was published in the highly commercial Vogue magazine). In the story Mrs Sommers “one day found herself unexpectedly possessor of fifteen dollars,” and foregoing the items she originally intends to buy for her children, manages in the course of an afternoon to spend the sum entirely on herself. Is this symbolic of our desire for instant gratification as opposed to long-term responsibility? Perhaps, but a reading of the story which portrays Mrs Sommers as either a victim of seductive capitalism, or as a selfish and irresponsible mother seems deeply unsympathetic to me.
She does not, for example, immediately rush to spend this unusual sum:
“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 afterwards regret.”
The pair of silk stockings she buys for herself first are not an impulsive indulgence but a calculated cost (“And still there would be enough left for silk stockings”). After buying the stockings, however, she goes immediately to a fitting room and puts them on – “How good was the touch of the raw silk to her flesh!” – and only then her spending spree begins: new shoes, gloves, a meal in a restaurant and a visit to the theatre.
To condemn or pity this behaviour is, of course, easy if you have never been poor: budgeting is a skill greatly admired by those who only have to save up for luxuries. Mrs Sommers may turn spendthrift for a day, but I was cheering her on. This is a woman, we are told, who can never relax:
“The needs of the present absorbed her every faculty. A vision of the future like some dim, gaunt monster sometimes appalled her, but luckily tomorrow never comes.”
Her purchases are more about momentarily relieving the tension caused by financial anxiety than rampant consumerism:
“She was not thinking at all. She seemed for the time to be taking a rest from that fatiguing and laborious function and to have abandoned herself to some mechanical impulse that directed her actions and freed her of responsibility.”
When she wishes at the end that the “cable car wold never stop anywhere, but go on and on with her forever” it is because she knows her escape is ephemeral and she must return to the life she led before.
‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’ comes with another four stories, all of which are excellent, and Chopin has been duly added to my list of writers to explore further.