Monday, October 22, 2018

Kate Chopin - A Pair of Silk Stockings (Overview - Part 2)


Before reading this post, if you haven't already done so, please read the first part here. It has a very brief note on the story's author, covers the plot, characters and setting.

You can find the story itself here.

This second part will deal with point of view, themes, symbolism, irony, the story's title, and will try to give some explanations as to the reasons why Mrs. Sommers gave in to temptation.




Kate Chopin – A Pair of Silk Stockings (continued)



Point of View

  • 3rd person omniscient
    • can enter any character’s mind
    • department clerk’s thoughts: “He could not make her out; he could not reconcile her shoes with her stockings.”
    • man at the end of the story: “It puzzled him to decipher what he saw there …  he saw nothing …”
  • 3rd person limited to Mrs. Sommers, with a mixture of very early form of stream-of-consciousness
    • She handed the girl a five-dollar bill and waited for her change and for her parcel. What a very small parcel it was!” (note how from a “she” the narration switches to an exclamation implicitly uttered by Mrs. Sommers)
    • she fears restaurant patrons would feel consternation at seeing her in such a place
    • final longing she has: “… that the cable car would never stop anywhere, but go on and on with her forever.”
  • this choice of narrator creates subtlety: readers feel as if they are being told facts but they are surreptitiously given snippets of Mrs. Sommers' life + character without being fed information they would react to had they been blatantly stated



Why does Mrs. Sommers give in to temptation?

  • cessation of all logic: she stopped thinking about her responsibilities, stopped reasoning with herself about what she must spend the money on
    • “She seemed for a time to be taking a rest from that laborious and fatiguing function [thinking] and to have abandoned herself to some mechanical impulse that directed her actions and freed her of responsibility.”
    • the cessation of this way of life is what she ultimately yearns for at the end of the story when she wishes the cable car would go on without stopping: she wants to escape this bleak existence

  • to feel life was agreeable for once:
    • “It was all very agreeable”: this is mentioned when she is sitting in the restaurant, cutting pages from her magazine with the blunt edge of a knife this is the very epitome of having nothing to do, being completely carefree
    • her responsibilities, loss of identity after her marriage and difficult financial situation have forced her to become a self-sacrificing mom, something she clearly has grown tired of

  • to feel important:
    • this is the first thing we see the money has made her believe about herself (cf. the first paragraph of the story)
    • her mentality and bearing changes as soon as she puts on each new item she buys:
      • as soon as she puts the stockings on, she stops thinking and lets impulse take over
      • she demands excellence and doesn’t mind paying more for anything once she sees herself in new shoes
      • after putting on a pair of gloves, she is already thinking of where to spend more money
      • after purchasing the magazines she walks at the crossings lifting her skirts “as well as she could” so people can admire her
      • she tips the waiter at the restaurant after dining to feel above his station and be made to feel like royalty
      • the final diversion brings her back down to reality: The play was over, the music ceased … It was like a dream ended.”

  • to feel a sense of belonging among those better-off than herself
    • Her stockings and boots and well fitting gloves had worked marvels in her bearing -- had given her a feeling of assurance, a sense of belonging to the well-dressed multitude.”
    • all these years, she had led a self-effacing existence that alienated her from those of her class
    • she no longer enjoyed the trappings of the haves (fine clothing, stylish shoes, leisure, good food) so felt shunned by them


Title
  • the beginning of the end lies in the stockings
  • none of all that happens in the story would have happened had she not laid a hand on that pile of silk stockings at the counter
  • her spending spree begins with the purchase of a pair of stockings which Mrs. Sommers exclaims is such a “small parcel … lost in the depths of her shabby old shopping-bag”
  • what the whole experience (set in motion by the stockings) reveals to Mrs. Sommers is that she is living a life she detests
    • she may, like the cable car we imagine fading in the distance with her seated in it, decide to change the course of her life after savoring the old life she had
    • what the story leaves unresolved is the question of what she’s going to do next:
      • will she go home and return to being the woman who bargains and elbows her way to the cashier’s desk?
      • will she see her life as insufferable and commit suicide?
      • will she try to find a way to earn money?
      • will she leave her husband and find someone who will give her the amenities she desires?

Symbolism
  • silk stockings
    • article of women’s lingerie, i.e. intimate, directly related with the essence of being a woman
    • they remind the main character of who she is as an individual
    • Mrs. Sommers’ greatest problem all the years after her marriage is that her existence is tied down by those she is bound to (husband, children), which is why she is referred to as Mrs. Sommers throughout the story
    • the material they are made of (silk) contrasts with the practical cotton stockings she is wearing; the minute she replaces the latter with the former, her mind is cleared of weighty responsibilities
    • the silk stockings can be seen as the apple of the Tree of Knowledge in the garden of Eden: it is the forbidden fruit whose knowledge, once tasted, cannot be undone but sinks you deeper into temptation
 

Irony

  • “kid” gloves
    • the wonderfully fitted gloves Mrs Sommers tries on and eventually buys are “kid” gloves (referring to the material they are made of)
    • ironic is the fact that not long ago, Mrs. Sommers envisioned her “little brood looking fresh and dainty and new for once in their lives”
    • the sales assistant at the glove counter “drew a long-wristed “kid” over Mrs. Sommer’s hand”, yet Mrs. Sommers is lost in admiration of her “little symmetrical gloved hand” and completely disregards any ideas connecting the kid glove to her parental responsibilities
      • enabling her kids feel fresh and dainty for the first time in their lives is no longer a priority
      • Mrs. Sommers commits the ultimate parental sin of selfishness by forgetting about her children (though the "kid" gloves should have brought her back to her senses)


 

Themes
  • the power of money
    • gives people a feeling of confidence, self-importance, a sense of belonging to the rest of society
    • is viewed by people to be more important than values such as love or family: these two notions fade with time, but the status provided by the things you own doesn’t

  • society’s opinion of you
    • people cling to the idea: “you are what others think you are”
    • people’s identity is decided by what others say or believe about you (which in turn is based on how you’re dressed, your social class + background, your finances)
    • connected to marriage and money

  • imprisonment & escape from life
    • connected to society’s opinion of you, the power of money and marriage
    • things tie you down, whether you have them or not
      • if you have money, you are tied down in the sense that you must continue to have money or else you’re nobody
      • if you don’t have money, you are tied down by the battles you must fight to make ends meet
    • for women in the past, money was either inherited or acquired by means of a husband: this greatly limited their destinies, as they became their husband’s property and depended entirely on him for their status in society (working-class women had it even worse as they ‘belonged’ to their husbands but had to work to help support their family as well)
    • Mrs. Sommers desires escape because she has been a nobody ever since she fell on hard times

  • marriage + loss of identity
    • Mrs. Sommers remains Mrs. Sommers throughout the story: it’s as if she doesn’t have a name of her own other than her husband’s surname
    • she is a married woman above all else: ironically, it is this precise fact that she puts to one side throughout her shopping spree –
      • she forgets the family’s financial troubles
      • she doesn’t think about helping her husband by spending the $15 wisely
      • she puts her own desires above her children’s needs (growing children need new shoes – Mrs. Sommers considers Janie’s need for new shoes that would last “an appreciable time longer than they usually did”, but ignores this and the stockings all her children need when she sees the silk stockings she eventually buys)
      • her final wish on the cable car is a clear longing to leave married life behind

  • heroine vs. anti-heroine
    • everything Mrs. Sommers does is reprehensible: she acts irresponsibly and her capriciousness  make her out to be a superficial / shallow human being
    • yet this story shows that women are human, moms aren’t superheroes
    • society expects women to be self-sacrificing, self-effacing creatures who exist to serve their children and husbands
    • this story expresses the deepest, darkest thoughts that take over women’s minds from time to time: Chopin might want us to consider how guilty Mrs. Sommers is (because of the way she behaves) and ponder to what extent society is to blame for this behavior (by limiting women’s role or bringing people up to value material goods over character and self-fulfillment, society is pushing women to nervous breakdowns, impulsive behavior, and a distaste of life itself)
    • Mrs. Sommers could be seen as committing an act of bravery in defying social norms: she puts herself first for once



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