Places to Go: A Pair of Silk Stockings by Kate Chopin
Reader Leader, Julie Gaukroger, takes us on today's audio adventure with an extract from A Pair of Silk Stockings by Kate Chopin.
The theme for our readings in April is 'Balm for the Soul' and we hope the poetry, readings and recommendations we have chosen can help us stay connected over the coming weeks.
Today in Places to Go, I thought we would go shopping. It used to be an everyday outing we took for granted, but not anymore! Now it feels positively exotic.
In our story, a hard-pressed mother comes into a small sum of money – not life-changing, but not insignificant either. Fifteen dollars, back in the 1890s. What would it be worth today? Perhaps £100 or a little more. Her first thought is not for herself at all. She sets out on her shopping trip with a long list of practical things to buy, all for her children. As adults, parents, we often do that, don’t we? We find ourselves with cash to spend, and our first thought is to spend it on our children, or others that we care for, rather than ourselves. Yet when she gets to the shops, she is seduced little by little into spending the money on herself. With her first purchase, the pair of silk stockings from the title of the story, she feigns indifference, as though it is the kind of purchase she makes every day. Yet inside she yearns for the stockings, and the luxury they represent.
“Little Mrs Summers”, the story starts. Why ‘little’? Is it just about her physical size, or this someone who perhaps does not take up much space in the world, someone who feels herself to be of little consequence? The story hints that her life used to be very different, yet there is no trace of self-pity in her.
The first step is the hardest. Having bought the stockings, she is on a bit of a roll. Dainty boots, soft, supple leather gloves, a frivolous magazine. We are really made to feel her intense enjoyment of her afternoon. We are told she is taking a rest from the ‘laborious and fatiguing’ function of thinking, and just letting herself be carried along on a wave of impulse. By the time she pauses for lunch, she is well into her stride. What she describes as not a “profusion” but just a ‘nice and tasty bite’ is really quite a feast, as though money were no object. Then on to the theatre, where she is totally absorbed, childlike in her delight. To other more privileged shoppers, lunchers and theatre-goers, it’s just another day. To her, it is exceptional, and to be savoured.
When I first read this story I found it very poignant. I got the sense, at the end, that Mrs Summers was already regretting her afternoon and dreading having to confess to her family how she had spent the precious money, that feelings of guilt and shame would end up destroying any pleasure it had brought. But when I read it again more recently with a group, it was so lovely to hear all the group members really rooting for her. Why shouldn’t she have her one afternoon of self- indulgence? Isn’t that what we all need from time to time? Throughout the pandemic we have talked a lot about the importance of self-care, how you can only take care of others if you take care of yourself first. It is clear that Mrs Summers leads a harsh, penny pinching life. Can anyone really begrudge her this single afternoon? We don’t know from the story where this money has come from, but it seems to be something of a windfall. Maybe there could be no better way to spend it. It’s not called retail therapy for nothing.
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