Saturday, October 20, 2018

Kate Chopin - A Pair of Silk Stockings (Overview - Part 1)

https://argutelegacy.blogspot.com/2018/10/chopin-pair-silk-stockings.html
If I were to say that the typical love triangle is substituted for a different one in the opening paragraph of Kate Chopin's "A Pair of Silk Stockings", few students would believe this is possible. In fact, when students give me feedback on this short story, it usually is negative, not because they didn't get it -- it's written plainly enough -- but because there's nothing going on in it, as they say.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is a symptom of the disease rampant in the 21st century called 'boxofficematerialitis', an epidemic conjoined with 'keeptheirinterestbyusingquicksuccessionofimagesitis', which has given rise to what has been conveniently labelled attention deficit disorder. The fact of the matter is that if there's no real action, that is, action which contains a number of spectacular car chases, shoot-'em-up scenes, explosions, or dirty underhanded scheming (that results in one or all of the aforementioned chases, scenes and explosions), then a story is simply bland.

Chopin's story, unfortunately, is just that. It's not invested with anything out of the ordinary to qualify as lively. There's no flagrant conflict between two people. The main character, Mrs. Sommers, doesn't seem to be shunned by all, oppressed by a totalitarian government, abused by a brute of a husband, worked to the bone by an overbearing supervisor. 


No, Mrs. Sommers, my dear friends, is merely off to shop. If I were to rename the story and make it into an 80's movie, its title would definitely be "Mrs. Sommers' Day Off", which however wouldn't have much in common with Ferris Bueller's adventures.  

And yet, there is more to be said about this story than about many action-packed blockbusters of our times. Chopin sidesteps the typical erotic triangle and substitutes it with an even more infamous combination: women, money, self-worth. Before you say anything that might speak of misogyny, let me add that Chopin's stories are considered by some to be the forerunner of early 20th century feminist literature, so I don't believe Chopin was implying anything offensive when speaking of women of some means out on a shopping spree to heighten their sense of belonging and self-respect.

There is so much to be said about this story that I've broken it up into two parts. This post deals with setting, plot and characters; the one to follow with point of view, an explanation of the title, symbols, themes, irony and the answer to the question of why Mrs. Sommers gives in to temptation after touching those silk stockings.



You can read the story here and part 2 of the overview here.



Don't forget to read other overviews of literary works or find posts explaining literary terms. Just click on the picture.

https://argutelegacy.blogspot.com/search/label/Literature

 

Kate Chopin – A Pair of Silk Stockings



Life

  • 1850 –1904, American 
  • wrote stories published in national magazines 
  • stories were controversial (some were called immoral)
  • her novel, The Awakening, considered an early feminist work

  • marries at 20, has 6 children

  • at 32, she is widowed and left with her husband’s debt

  • she runs his business for 2 yrs before selling it

  • her mother helps her financially until her death

  • Chopin begins writing to overcome her ensuing depression and as a source of income
  • "A Pair of Silk Stockings" was published in Vogue in 1897




Setting

  • unknown city (or town) on a mild day

    • a “gentle breeze was blowing” through the restaurant window
    • the town/city must  be large enough to have a theater, department store, cable cars, a posh restaurant and have a “well-dressed multitude” of inhabitants walking about its streets

  • sometime between the mid-19th century to early 20th century

    • multi-storey department stores that sold a variety of goods like the gloves, shoes and hosiery Mrs. Sommers purchases mushroomed around the 1850’s
    • gloves, long dresses/skirts, magazines wrapped when purchased, shirtwaists, stockings, “caps for the boys and sailor-hats for the girls” – all these put together give us an image of late 19th century to early 20th century fashions
    • Mrs. Sommers lifts her “skirts at the crossings” after having bought the 2 high-priced magazines: ankle-length skirts (petticoats) worn beneath an ankle-length overskirt were common throughout the 19th century
    • value of $15 (how much could be bought with that money)





Plot

  • Mrs. Sommers, mother of at least 4 children, gets $15 windfall

  • spends 2 days calculating what to buy, not wanting to do something she might regret

    • she plans on getting
      • shoes for Janie
      • shirtwaists for all
      • gown for Mag
      • caps for the boys
      • sailor hats for the girls

  • Mrs. Sommers is less well-off than before

    • her children’s clothes are old, need to be patched
    • thinks of the darning she won’t have to do if she buys her kids new stockings
    • neighbors talk about her once having seen “better days”
    • she hasn’t felt important “for years”
    • she doesn’t want to think about the future which is like “some dim, gaunt monster”
    • she hopes tomorrow never comes
    • she bargains for things now; has learned to clutch item she wants to buy and wait for her turn
    • she has forgotten to eat lunch
    • wears no gloves
    • is wearing cotton stockings (not silk) and old shoes

  • without realizing it, she finds herself at the hosiery department of a store, her hand resting on a pile of silk stockings

  • what ensues is a series of purchases (she jumps from one temptation to the next)

    • stockings (she immediately goes up to the ladies’ waiting rooms to put them on)
    • shoes: “She was fastidious.”
      • Lifts her skirts to check how she looks
      • doesn’t care if she spends $1-2 more, as long as she got what she desired
    • gloves: “But there were other places where money might be spent.”
    • 2 high-priced magazines
      • carries them away without having them wrapped (wants everyone to see)
      • her bearing has changed = she has more self-assurance (lifts her skirts at crossings to show others her newly-purchased wares)
      • she now feels a “sense of belonging to the well-dressed multitude”)
    • restaurant meal
      • she dines at a fine restaurant she’d never entered before, but whose luxurious interior she’d caught glimpses of
      • “spotless damask and shining crystal, and soft-stepping waiters” sums up the atmosphere
      • her fastidiousness comes out in full glory: she won’t eat “a profusion” but orders 6 blue-points (oysters), a chop with cress, a crème frappée, Rhenish wine and coffee
      • “The price of it made no difference.”
      • she leaves the waiter a tip
    • matinée show at the theater
      • she sits next to a gaudy woman; they cry over the tragedy and talk a little together, share candy
      • women go there to kill time, eat candy, display their gaudy attire
      • Mrs. Sommers laughs and weeps at the comic and tragic bits like others there; takes in the whole experience

  • ending:

    • she leaves the theater, takes the cable car to return home
    • man on the cable car observes her: doesn’t see she wishes the cable car would never stop, but keep going on with her forever





Characters

  • Mrs. Sommers

    • what she is now:
      • “little Mrs. Sommers” mentioned twice in 4 paragraphs and once at the end
        • they are the very first words of the story
        • paragraph 4: used when the neighbors are talking about she’s had better days
        • third paragraph from the end when she is at the theater, the gaudy lady passes “little Mrs. Sommers her box of candy”
      • the opening image we have of her is how the $15 is making her old porte-monnaie (purse) bulge, making her feel important: the immediate triangle created is her – money – self-importance
      • disillusioned
      • a shadow of her former glory
      • financially worse off than before / hard up: must make “judicious use of the money”
      • tired, feels faint, not strong enough to set off in search for bargains
      • last paragraph: “small, pale face”
      • has lost hope: hopes tomorrow never comes, doesn’t want to think about the future at all
      • is very aware of what others say or think about her = preoccupation of others’ opinion of her
        • at the restaurant she presumes others would be surprised, dismayed by her entrance
        • the narrator’s voice blends with her thoughts so it is unclear whether what the neighbors say about her is an omniscient narrator’s comment or Mrs. Sommers’ indirect knowledge since the next sentence in the story clearly blends her thoughts into the narrative



    • what she used to be:
      • enjoyed a sense of importance
      • never had to think about saving money, bargaining for items, elbowing her way to get an object sold below cost
      • never skipped meals or even forgot she hadn’t eaten
      • free of all responsibility
      • could read more expensive magazines
      • “accustomed to other pleasant things”
      • probably fastidious, self-indulgent



    • essential change in her occurs when the narrative switches time perspectives:
      • at the start of the story, thinking back to other times referred to her former self, before she had children, responsibilities, needed to be thrifty
      • just before she enters the restaurant, the narrative switches to refer to other times as those when she would go home to soothe her hunger: “She was hungry. Another time she would have stilled the cravings for food until reaching her own home, where she would have brewed herself a cup of tea and taken a snack of anything that was available.”
      • she has become her old self, referring to her difficult times as bygone



    • deep down she knows herself: it took her 1-2 days to think about what to do with the $15 because she was afraid she would spend it on something she’d regret – her fears came true



    • we never learn her first name:
      • she is characterized by her marriage to Mr. Sommers
      • her existence/personality/status is shaped by her marriage: this is what gives her her identity
      • it is safe to assume that her old life ended and her new life began when she married, so her marriage is the focal point of her fate



  • Mrs. Sommers’ children

    • 2 girls (Janie, Mag)
    • at least 2 boys (unnamed)
    • it is interesting to see that the girls are referred to by their names while the boys remain anonymous
      • may imply Mrs. Sommers’ attachment to the girls
      • perhaps she is more fastidious about her girls whom she sees as a projection of herself
      • by dressing the girls nicely, she is giving them what she herself would have wanted and is therefore feeling the pleasure of owning new things through their pleasure
      • by providing new clothes for all her children, she feels she is elevating her position in society
    • in reality, her children are obstacles to her happiness and self-indulgence



  • shop assistants / waiter

    • all are there to accommodate her feelings of self-importance / self-esteem
    • Mrs. Sommers enjoys having others wait on her
    • her preoccupation with what others think of her or how they see her is pampered by the thought that these assistants will treat her like one able to afford luxurious, not discounted items
    • waiter she tips bows before her as if she were “a princess of royal blood” (note the fact that she views herself as a princess, not a queen – she has completely set aside the fact that she’s married and reverts to her carefree youth) 



  • gaudy lady at the theater

    • we can imagine her being the mirror image of Mrs. Sommers before her “fall”
    • she, like many other “brilliantly dressed women who had gone there to kill time and eat candy and display their gaudy attire”, has probably come to do the same
    • she flaunts a “tiny square of filmy, perfumed lace” handkerchief and generously offers candy to Mrs. Sommers
    • Mrs. Sommers and the lady can identify with each other which is why they both weep, share their views on the play



  • man on cable car

    • keen eyes
    • “seemed to like the study of her small, pale face”
    • tries to decipher her based on how she looks, but would never be able to understand her = theme at the heart of many of Chopin’s works = inability to see inner workings of the female mind







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