Q. How does Kate Chopin use symbolism in “A Pair of Silk Stockings”? What do the silk stockings represent in the story?
Introduction: Symbolism in Chopin’s Work
One of the key tools Kate Chopin employs in her storytelling is symbolism. It is a literary device that imbues her narratives with richness and depth beyond the text’s surface level. It enables her to explore complex themes and emotions.
Chopin’s use of symbolism allows her to depict the struggles of her female protagonists in ways that are both profoundly personal and universal. Her symbols often revolve around elements from nature, domestic objects, and certain actions or events in the story.
Mrs Sommers, the protagonist in A Pair of Silk Stockings, gets unexpected money. Accustomed to thriftiness, she initially plans to use this money for her children’s needs. However, a chance encounter with a pair of silk stockings at a shop changes the course of her day and, subtly, her life.
The silk stockings become a powerful symbol that mirrors Mrs Sommers’s internal struggles and yearnings, signifying freedom, indulgence, her previous life, and an escape from her everyday struggles.
Silk Stockings: A Symbol of Luxury and Freedom
In Kate Chopin’s short story “A Pair of Silk Stockings,” the eponymous silk stockings symbolize the luxury and freedom Mrs Sommers has not experienced for a long time. She is accustomed to a life of frugality because of her family’s financial situation.
When an unexpected sum of money comes her way, her initial plan is to spend it on practical items. Primarily, she aims to use it for her children’s needs. However, when she encounters the silk stockings in a shop, she spontaneously buys them.
Purchasing and wearing the stockings represents a departure from her usual austerity. In a way, it is a small rebellion against her life of self-denial and sacrifice.
This decision suggests her suppressed desires and longings, the innate longing for self-indulgence in making decisions.
The stockings’ soft, luxurious texture and quality appeal to her senses and provide her with the rare pleasure of owning something beautiful just for herself. This unexpected luxury grants her a sense of liberation, even if momentary.
Thus, the silk stockings symbolize freedom and luxury, signifying a much-needed personal indulgence in Mrs Sommers’s otherwise restrained life.
The Nostalgia of a Previous Life
In “A Pair of Silk Stockings,” the silk stockings represent more than just a moment of indulgence for Mrs Sommers—they also symbolize the nostalgia of a previous, more affluent life she once lived. Mrs Sommers was previously part of a higher social class before adapting to a more modest lifestyle.
In her past life, silk stockings were not considered a luxury but a commonplace item. The encounter with the stockings in the store stirs memories of this past, hinting at a life of comfort and affluence now long behind her.
The sensation of the silk stockings against her skin transports her back to when she did not have to budget every cent meticulously. The stockings, therefore, serve as a tangible link to her past, a brief respite from her present-day economic hardships. In buying and wearing them, she can recapture, if only momentarily, the feeling of her bygone days.
This nostalgia underscores Mrs Sommers’s complex feelings about her past and present circumstances. Her life now revolves around frugality and self-sacrifice. Yet, the silk stockings provide a fleeting chance for her to return to her past identity. These stockings remind her and the reader of the woman she was and the woman she might become once more.
An Escape from the Harsh Reality
The silk stockings are an emblem of escape for Mrs Sommers from the harsh reality of her existence. Living in economic constraints and constantly grappling with making ends meet, Mrs Sommers’s life revolves around practicality and sacrifice.
However, when impulsively purchases the silk stockings, she inadvertently opens the door to a different world where she can momentarily disregard her everyday struggles.
Following the purchase, Mrs Sommers indulges herself further. She attends a matinee, savours an upscale lunch, and luxuriates in her own company—experiences she has not afforded in years.
Each step away from her routine is a step into an alternative reality where she is not just a mother and a penny-pincher but a woman who deserves enjoyment and self-care.
Thus, the silk stockings symbolize an escape route—a brief vacation from the strain of her usual life. The stockings symbolize a form of escapism. They let her momentarily escape her mundane routine and indulge in pleasures she seldom experiences.
Through this symbolism, Chopin underscores the themes of personal desire and temporary escape from the toils of a challenging life.
A Contrast to Her Current Life
The silk stockings in Kate Chopin’s “A Pair of Silk Stockings” symbolize a striking contrast to Mrs Sommers’s present life. Known for her prudence and self-sacrifice, Mrs Sommers has become accustomed to a life of austerity.
The fine, delicate stockings represent a world far removed from her current existence, characterized by utility and need. The tactile sensation of the stockings against her skin significantly departs from the coarse, practical fabrics she usually wears.
This stark difference in texture emphasizes the gap between her current state and her former, wealthier life. The luxurious stockings provide a tactile reminder of what she has lost regarding material comfort and personal indulgence.
In purchasing the stockings and surrendering to a day of self-gratification, Mrs Sommers momentarily crosses this chasm between her past and present. The stockings become a token of her former self, a remembrance of a time when she could afford such luxuries regularly.
Through the symbol of the silk stockings, Chopin powerfully contrasts Mrs Sommers’s past affluence with her present frugality. It highlights the poignant transformation in her circumstances and the deep internal longing that this transition has instilled in her.
The Significance of the Silk Stockings
In conclusion, Kate Chopin employs the symbol of the silk stockings to great effect in her short story. They represent the luxury and freedom of choice Mrs Sommers craves, the link to her former affluent self, an escape from her exhausting reality, and a stark contrast to her current life of self-denial.
This symbol underscores Chopin’s exploration of the themes of personal freedom, the conflict between duty and desire, and the role of women in society.
Even as Mrs Sommers returns to her reality at the end of the story, the transformative experience symbolized by the silk stockings leaves an indelible impact on her and the readers.