KRISTIN B. VALENTINE & JANET LARSEN PALMER

The Rhetoric of Nineteenth-Century Feminism in Kate Chopin's "A Pair of Silk Stockings"

 

Kate Chopin wrote "A Pair of Silk Stockings" in l896 during a period of intense feminist activity in the United States. The writings and speeches of Margaret Fuller, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Frances D. Gage spearheaded the struggle of women to escape the straitjacket of "kirke, kinder, and kuche." No hard evidence exists in Chopin's letters or biography to indicate that she thought of herself as a feminist in the Fuller, Anthony, Stanton, or Gage sense. Yet, because of Chopin's understanding of convention, as well as her sense of the possibilities of personal freedom, the main characters of her fiction are inextricably linked with nineteenth-century feminist activists. Her characters struggle, as the feminists of the time struggled, to escape the confining roles of self-sacrificing wifehood and motherhood.

The wife and mother in "A Pair of Silk Stockings" ("little Mrs. Sommers") is one of these struggling characters. She explores her own selfhood, yet, paradoxically, never violates the ideals of "True Womanhood" toward which Victorian women were to aspire. These ideals were to be passive and proper, docile and decorous, sober and sedate (Conrad 48). The yearning toward selfhood, while trying to hold on to the ideals of "True Womanhood," is part of the dramatic irony and rhetorical stance of "A Pair of Silk Stockings."

In synopsis form, the story centers on a woman named Mrs. Sommers, who, having received an unexpected amount of money, intends to spend it on clothes for her children. Instead, she succumbs to the almost forgotten sensual pleasure of buying fine stockings, shoes, and gloves. She then treats herself to expensive magazines, a delicious lunch, and a matinee performance of a sentimental comedy. When the streetcar takes her home, she wishes it would "go on and on with her forever" (Chopin 504). It is an afternoon of self-indulgence by an otherwise selfless woman.

The writer of "A Pair of Silk Stockings" was born Katherine O'Flaherty in 1851 in St. Louis. She married Oscar Chopin in 1870, when she was nineteen, and moved with him to New Orleans. They had six children. In her early thirties, she was widowed and left with small children to support on very little money. Perhaps prompted by lack of income and abundance of talent, she soon began writing the three novels and the one hundred short stories and sketches that mark her literary creativity. When "A Pair of Silk Stockings" was published in 1897, she was on the threshold of creating her best known work, the novel entitled The Awakening.

While Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Frances D. Gage, and others of the time used speeches to fight for women's freedom, Kate Chopin fought for the same ends through her stories and novels. She created characters like Mrs. Sommers of "Silk Stockings," Louise Mallard of "The Story of an Hour," and Edna Pontellier of The Awakening. Each of these women clearly understands the "True Womanhood" vision of proper social relationships, and concurrently goes against it. The characters are granted momentary autonomy, but are not permitted to succeed in creating more than short-term existences free from wifedom and mothercare.

The carefully developed interrelationship between living up to society's expectations and escaping from its strictures is a dominant feature of Chopin's character development. When The Awakening was published in 1899, for example, critics of the time attacked her for writing about a character who put sexual gratification above her relationship to her children. However, as Carole Stone points out, "The Awakening is even more radical than the critics thought because it questions the assumption that childbirth and child care are a woman's principal vocation, and that motherhood gives pleasure to all women" (23). "The Story of an Hour," for another example, questions the assumption that news of a husband's death should be devastating to the "True Woman." The contrary, however, is true. As Valentine and Valentine explain:

Mrs. Mallard experiences momentary grief only until she comes to realize that now, without her husband, she can "live for herself" because she is "Free! Body and soul free!" Her oppression, her repression, has been terminated. She experiences great joy in her freedom, a joy that carries her to such a high level of excitement that when her husband reappears her disappointment causes her to suffer a heart attack and she dies. The doctors who treat her add the final irony by declaring that it was the joy of seeing her husband that killed her, rather than recognizing that it was really the pain of great disappointment. And pessimistically, the story leaves us with the fact that the oppressor (no matter how benign) goes on living. (50)

Like Louise Mallard, Mrs. Sommers experiences an epiphany as she goes about spending her small windfall for tactile and gustatory personal pleasures. It is quite possible, of course, that Chopin's creation of Mrs. Sommers and Louise Mallard led her to invent the stronger, more passionate, and more desperate protagonist of The Awakening--a woman who finds that when illusions fail, "the psyche is left unprotected against particularities of time and place over which it has no more control than do the caged or stricken birds that appear at beginning and end" (Batten 87). Regardless of the cost, Chopin's characters long for an independent self-fulfillment that comes when human beings are free to make meaningful choices rather than responding only as someone else's daughter, sister, wife, or mother. In her speech to the 1856 Women's Rights Convention, for example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton urged women to become individuals in their own right. "The woman," she proclaimed emphatically, "is greater than the wife or mother; and in consenting to take upon herself these relations, she should never sacrifice one iota of her individuality" (89). Discontent among women at having to sacrifice individuality was voiced by Frances Gage at the convention of the American Equal Rights Association in 1867. In strongly-worded opposition to attempts to stamp women into a uniform pattern, Gage explained why so many women were unhappy: "This discontent arises out of the one fact, that you have attempted to mould 17 millions of souls into one shape and make them all do one thing. Take away your restrictions, open all doors, leave women at liberty to go where they will . . ." (50).

The enforced containment by marriage and the concept of liberty emerge as central issues in Chopin's work. Emancipation is a constant theme, observes Skaggs in her book on Kate Chopin. "But the subject matter remains consistent throughout, with her primary concern usually being the conflicting nature of people's needs for a secure place or role in life, for love, and for autonomy" (54). At first, Mrs. Sommers seems to be one of those women who idolize their children, but when she spends all the money on luxuries for herself, "no hint of censure for her selfishness colors the picture of this young mother. Indeed, the reader feels deep compassion for her" (60).

As her characters tended to keep their own counsel, so did Chopin with regard to any official identification with feminist groups. Evidence indicates that the only women's group Chopin ever joined was one started by Charlotte Eliot (who taught literature to her son, T. S. Eliot) and forty other women in St. Louis. Called "The Wednesday Club," it published its intentions to "create and maintain an organized center of thought and action and, by united effort, to promote the usefulness of its members" (Seyersted 65). Chopin belonged to the club for two years, from 1890 to 1892, but she dropped her membership. Her finely tuned sense of irony may have led her to disagree with The Wednesday Club, and some other feminist organizations, in their notions that what was needed was to bring men's morals up to the high moral standard set by women. In Chopin's stories, the men are rarely immoral, or villainous, although they may be boring or weak. In fact, in "Silk Stockings," Mr. Sommers is not even mentioned.

Lewis Leary chauvinistically argues that the reason Chopin did not align with feminist organizations was that she "was too complete a human being to be an activist" (143). It is much more likely that she was simply too involved in her own artistic outpourings and too much of a realist to join any formal movement. But no woman who, in fifty-three years of life, rears six children primarily as a single-parent, and then turns out a hundred stories and three novels, most with feminist leanings, could be so summarily counted out of the "activist" camp. Chopin used fiction writing rather than organizational affiliation to voice her feminist opinions and beliefs. Through her tightly-knit stories and novels, she presents a realistic picture of the fundamental needs of existence, with a special emphasis on women's existence. As Meese writes, "the very act of writing, of speech, signals her defiance and requires that she transgress or (un)cross the double-cross of difference as constituted by phallocentrism" (120). For that reason her work is included in nearly every survey of feminist writers in the United States. She is a link in the tradition formed by fiction writers Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Willa Cather. Like them, she communicates to her readers that woman's first duty is to herself. Like them, and the vocal feminists of that time, she is aware of the conflict between self-fulfillment and self-sacrifice--a tension that is still part of the pattern of women's existence nearly a century later.

The feminist position of "A Pair of Silk Stockings" is not that self-indulgence should replace self-sacrifice but that the two states should be balanced in a woman's life. Too much self-sacrifice leads to the self-effaced condition of "little Mrs. Sommers" in the beginning of the story, and too much self-indulgence breeds "gaudy women" who frequent matinees "to kill time and eat candy" (504).

The rhetorical power of Chopin's story is invested in a narrator who gently but decisively guides Mrs. Sommers toward her temporary taste of freedom. This third person narrator (who should be considered female since there is no evidence to the contrary) operates from an omniscient point of view following closely the mind and actions of Mrs. Sommers. When we look closely at the role of this narrator, we find that she has a curious double role. Her first role is to empathize with Mrs. Sommers's orientation to her family: "The vision of her little brood looking fresh and dainty and new for once in their lives excited her and made her restless and wakeful with anticipation" (Chopin 500). A more radical feminist than Chopin might take the opportunity to ridicule Mrs. Sommers's family dedication, but this is not the stance of the narrator of this story. The narrator's implied assessment of Mrs. Sommers as a thoroughly dedicated mother elicits empathy for a woman who deserves respect for not indulging in "morbid retrospection" of the better days before her marriage (500). Mrs. Sommers is, after all, a practical woman "who knew the value of bargains" and made her own way in a difficult world with "persistence and determination" (501). Furthermore, Mrs. Sommers is considerate of others, even while shopping for herself, as evidenced by her timid inquiries of the stocking salesgirl and her conscientious tipping of the waiter.

The narrator's second role is to lead Mrs. Sommers into experiencing freedom of expression: "How good was the touch of the raw silk to her flesh! She felt like lying back in the cushioned chair and reveling for a while in the luxury of it. She did for a little while" (502). Whether she is being the dutiful mother or the self-indulgent shopper, Mrs. Sommers is presented to us as an admirable woman, one who could be a role model, and one who is entirely deserving of the day of freedom she is given. The narrator's task is to expose Mrs. Sommers to a healthy self-indulgence that will balance her life. How the narrator achieves her purpose is indicative of the gentle feminism of Kate Chopin. Throughout "A Pair of Silk Stockings," the narrator's style is tender, nonjudgmental, but persistent. Even when Mrs. Sommers seems to resist the narrator's direction, the storyteller is indulgent of her attitude, gently coaxing her toward personal fulfillment and understanding the reasons for her hesitation: "She sat herself upon a revolving stool before a counter that was comparatively deserted, trying to gather strength and courage to charge through an eager multitude that was besieging breast-works of shirting and figured lawn" (501).

At this stage, the narrator's hovering presence, her proximity to Mrs. Sommers, indicates a maternal, protective attitude toward her character. The narrator appears concerned that Mrs. Sommers has forgotten to eat lunch, and later insists that she eat properly. When Mrs. Sommers claims that it is her usual practice to wait until she gets home to eat, the narrator interjects to say that "the impulse that was guiding her would not suffer her to entertain any such thought" (503). Patiently, the narrator leads Mrs. Sommers into the unfamiliar experience of being served, rather than serving. Indeed, all the minor characters in the story are in servant roles. The salesgirls are pleasant and helpful; the shoe clerk "served her" (502), and the waiter bows before her as if "she were a princess of royal blood" (503). Even the gaudy woman in the theatre serves her a box of candy (504).

The narrator, however, is much more than a guiding figure standing benevolently in the background. She is the rhetorical force in the story, the "mechanical impulse that directed her actions and freed her of responsibility" (502). She takes control of Mrs. Sommers early in the story, and remains the propelling force until the character begins to feel comfortable with her new role. When Mrs. Sommers gradually becomes aware of the silk stockings beneath her hand, it is as if the narrator had mysteriously placed her hand there, under the guise of an accident: "An all-gone limp feeling had come over her and she rested her hand aimlessly upon the counter. She wore no gloves. By degrees she grew aware that her hand had encountered something very soothing" (501). Soon, Mrs. Sommers finds herself in the ladies's waiting room, rather than at the bargain counter where she had intended to go. Then, when she realizes she is hungry, Mrs. Sommers (directed by an insistent narrator) enters an elegant, breezy restaurant to have lunch, rather than deny herself such indulgence. It is almost as if the narrator takes Sommers by the arm and gently propels her in the desired direction (503).

Throughout the story the reader senses that Mrs. Sommers is not in control of herself, but instead is driven by a force that she does not really understand even while she surrenders herself to it. That force is described and is, in a sense, literally enacted by the narrator.

"A Pair of Silk Stockings" does not, however, endorse passivity. A clear feminist message of the story is that once women are introduced to self-freedom, by whatever means, they should be active, not passive, in their pursuit of its values. Mrs. Sommers makes the transition from passive to active status when she "crossed straight over to the shoe department and took her seat to be fitted." From that moment on, the narrator begins to step back; and Mrs. Sommers, who no longer needs narrative intervention, admires the crystal and listens to the music, taking her leisure over her lunch and her magazines. At this point in the story, the paradox of the point of view is that the narrator becomes most influential when she is least central.

The storyteller's rhetorical purpose is achieved when Mrs. Sommers comes to value self-fulfillment on her own. At the theatre, the narrator tells us, "It is safe to say there was no one present who bore quite the attitude which Mrs. Sommers did to her surroundings. She gathered in the whole--stage and players and people in one wide impression, and absorbed it and enjoyed it" (504). The satisfaction of the day's experience may be responsible for her new awareness, or it may be that the narrator's "impulse" taps an appreciation of luxury from deep in Mrs. Sommers's past. There is a reference in the text to "better days" that "little Mrs. Sommers" had known before she had ever thought of being "Mrs. Sommers" (500). The "high priced magaizines such as she had been accustomed to read in the days when she had been accustomed to other pleasant things" (503) suggest that the impulse, though appearing to be an external force in the beginning of the story, is really a manifestation of an important element of Mrs. Sommers's own personality.

Finally, as Mrs. Sommers returns home on the cable car, with the joy of the day fading behind her, it is implied that she is returning to her role as mother with as much dedication as she had before she deviated from it. But her "powerful longing that the cable car would never stop anywhere, but go on and on with her forever" (504) surely cannot be forgotten or closed off.

In conclusion, then, Kate Chopin's "A Pair of Silk Stockings" does not have the feminist fire of the writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton or the speeches of Susan B. Anthony. It owes too much to the prevailing views of "True Womanhood." Yet, ironically, its power may have been rhetorically effective because it avoided the polarizing effect of more radical literature. By carefully balancing her narrator's position between respect for self-sacrifice and endorsement of self-freedom, Chopin exhibits a liberal, rather than a radical, feminist rhetoric.

 

 

LIST OF WORKS CITED

Batten, Wayne. "Illusion and Archetype: The Curious Story of Edna Pontellier." The Southern Literary Journal 18 (1985): 73-88.

Conrad, Charles. "Agon and Rhetorical Form: The Essence of 'Old Feminist' Rhetoric." Central States Speech Journal 32 (1981): 45-53.

Chopin, Kate. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Ed. Per Seyersted. 2 vols. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 1969. (All quotations from "A Pair of Silk Stockings" are from Vol. 1.)

Gage, Frances D. Proceedings of the American Equal Rights Association Convention, 9-10 May 1867. New York, 1867.

Leary, Lewis. "Kate Chopin, Liberationist?" Southern Literary Journal 3:1 (1970): 138-144.

Meese, Elizabeth A. Crossing the Double-Cross: The Practice of Feminist Criticism. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986.

Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 1969.

Skaggs, Peggy. Kate Chopin. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Proceedings of the Woman's Rights Convention, 25-26 November 1856. New York, 1856.

Stone, Carole. "The Female Artist in Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Birth and Creativity." Women's Studies 13 (1986): 23-32.

Valentine, K. B., and D. E. Valentine. Interlocking Pieces: Twenty Questions for Understanding Literature. 2nd ed. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1980..s S