Literary Analysis: A Pair of Silk Stockings

The diminutive Mrs. Sommers demonstrates, in A Pair of Silk Stockings, the flexibility of role and identity that women often must possess, and her return to her usual life is likely as a result.

As a married woman, she has already changed roles once. She has subordinated her personal comfort and identity to the needs, as well as monetary and time constraints, of her husband’s socio-economic level. She has given up fashion and self-gratification of any kind for the sake of her children.

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It is only under the influence of low blood sugar, and the tactile lure of the silky fabric, that she allows herself to indulge in a domino progression of indulgences. These re-open for her a social and sensual milieu out of which she has been, or felt shut out of, since marriage. She moves back into this previous role with ease.

By the end of her little ‘binge’, she is aware that she will have to return to her married, maternal role, out of which she stepped, if only for a few hours, and accept the consequences of having spent her windfall. However, since the reader has watched her switch from one identity to another with swift facility, if not conscious thought, it is a safe assumption that she will probably switch back into married mode once the impulse and the cash are mere memories.

She takes the most important step in re-entering the hardships of her married life; she starts for home. Thus far, in her marriage, she has been accepting of her role, and played it with good grace. She shows every sign of gracefully abdicating the temporary life of a fashionable, unencumbered lady.

Mrs. Sommers has been familiar with little luxuries, but has given them up for married life.

The reader knows that the protagonist has not always been the penny-pinching drudge that she is now because, “The neighbors sometimes talked of certain ‘better days’ that little Mrs. Sommers had known before she had ever thought of being Mrs. Sommers.” (Ross) She has been living within the income of her husband and it has consumed all her energies and attention. This she has done with good grace, as evidenced by her spending two days pondering the allocation of her 15 dollars on her kids.

However, the past that her neighbors recall must have included products (e.g., gloves, shoes, stockings, magazines) and services (e.g., theatre) and social entree (elite restaurants), which are no longer part of what 21st century readers would term her lifestyle. This is clear from the almost automatic, graceful, and reflexive way she acquires them when she has the chance.

For example, she does not have to think twice about the need to spend a bit extra to ensure that her new boots are well fitting. Furthermore, the clerk can discern that her experience in buying shoes does not match the shabbiness of her old footwear. Like many women in many times and places, she switches roles with facility.

In fact, it takes a rather potent combination of factors to distract her from her selfless intentions. She expects to spend her money on items to fill out her children’s wardrobes, but once started spending on herself; however, she moves fluidly to reacquaint herself with genteel pleasures.

Disoriented by an empty stomach, and the availability of both the cash and the products she has long since given up, she succumbs to the lure of minor luxuries that have become almost alien to her. While queuing to purchase discounted sewing fabric for her daughters, the sensuous feel of silk stockings leads to one personal pampering after another.

Why silk stockings should be such a powerful stimulus is explained by the way the author describes their feel and appearance: “Her foot and ankle looked very pretty” (Ross). At that time, it was not necessary for a married lady to look or feel glamorous. That potent reminder, however, was enough to set her, without conscious thought, to pursuing other items to reinforce that feeling of comfort and ease and beauty.

As her little binge continues, the reader is led to worry whether she will be able to stop, whether this taste of the freedom from the incessant mending and scrimping for her brood will lead her to kick the traces or ruin her husband financially. The possibility exists that she will abandon her family permanently and return to single life as best she can in the era of this story.

There is also the possibility that she will not be able to rein in her unaccustomed spending, and will empty the family’s coffers for her own enjoyment. However, she has been aware of the risks from the start. In the opening paragraphs, Ross writes, “A vision of the future like some dim, gaunt monster sometimes appalled her, but luckily to-morrow never comes” (Ross).

Fortunately, this little windfall was unforeseen, and therefore, her kids will be no worse off than if the money had never existed. She has done nothing, under the spell of her spree, for which she can be pilloried, with the possible exception of sharing a hankie with a woman who is clearly some sort of courtesan.

In fact, she has perhaps, in the most optimistic interpretation, given herself a tiny vacation that will comfort her during her chores for weeks or months to come. She has exhibited an instinctive capacity to adapt to changed circumstances, first in becoming a devoted housewife, and then in taking a turn as a fashionable lady who lunches.

Her behavior offers every hope that she will revert gracefully to her life without permanent damage to her marriage, in spite of her apparent and understandable desire to prolong that delicious freedom. She may wish, as she rides the cable car home that the ride would continue indefinitely, but the fact is that she is on the car, and it is heading that way.

The protagonist is a woman who has sacrificed a privileged background to scrimp and serve her husband and children, presumably lovingly. She has abandoned one role already to adopt the guise of a married church-mouse. It is only the combined pressure of hunger and discounted silky hose that seduces her. These stimuli, although she does not articulate this to herself, impel her to use her tiny windfall for her own enjoyment.

She recaptures the ease of a woman of means with alacrity The risk that she will not be able to accommodate herself again to the scrimping and labor her married life demands is substantial. Although she evinces a desire for the experience to continue indefinitely, her behavior belies this. She did, indeed, head straight to that cable car to return home.

This suggests that, in the way of women in all eras, she will throw off the role of fashionable lady once again, and resume her duties, refreshed) and better shod). In the 21st century, such a day of self-indulgence would be termed a mental health holiday, and might well be prescribed by her therapist.

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