Mrs. Sommers, having come into possession of an unexpected windfall, chooses to temporarily escape from the dreary responsibilities of a rather common, penny-pinching existence to enjoy some of the finer things in life for a fleeting moment of lightness, free from the usual shackles of conscientiousness expected of a wife and mother. We are given no reason to believe that Mrs. Sommers had ever previously neglected the necessities of her family in order to selfishly enjoy such a fleeting pleasure as any woman would be entitled to by virtue of her gender. I see her purchase of the silk stockings and subsequent indulgences as inevitable temptations given the sudden circumstances of unexpected cash in lieu of the regular obligations being as satisfied as they ever were. This momentous event of hedonism could hardly tip the scales of justice when weighed against a lifetime of abstention, temperance, and moderation for the sake of honoring the unwritten contract to satisfy matrimonial obligation and motherly pride. Hence, the theme of escapism herein is universal. We often consider subservience as a key issue addressed by the women’s movement and feminism. However, in “A Pair of Silk Stockings,” the issue of economics is brought into focus with both gender and class taking center stage. I do sympathize with Mrs. Sommers.
This short story makes clear the fact that to be a wife and mother one has to be an excellent bookkeeper and administrator in order to meet the ever-changing and abundant needs of her family. I would imagine that rare was the occasion when time, opportunity, and disposable income would be available to any one of the lower or working class, whether they be male or female, in order to enjoy such a mildly opulent day as Mrs. Sommers had on the day described in this story. She was a victim of circumstances and to call her selfish is to ignore the greater contexts of class, gender, precedence, and economics indicated by the author. I am convinced that Mrs. Sommers betrayed neither Christian ethics nor her family by her actions. No amount of Scripture considered in context could dissuade my conclusion that this woman had consistently practiced self-sacrifice for her family and also suffered unfathomable indignities as a "have not" in American society up until that day.
There is also no reason to believe that she will not return to her selfless and dutiful life as thrifty wife and mother at the story's end. From the standpoint of developments and movements in American society and how they are reflected in the Literature written throughout our history, taking into consideration the setting of this tale, I am trying to have an open mind to the complexities of Mrs. Sommers’ dilemma and not take the easy route of pointing my finger at an act of sin. The point I am trying to make is that there is more to this story than that. Mrs. Sommers usually shopped for her family’s needs at the expense of her own. She usually never treated herself to anything nice, not even an occasional luncheon or the theater. She would usually fight tooth and nail to secure the necessities of life at a bargain for her family’s sake. This story does not paint her as a terrible sinner, but rather as a woman usually inclined towards sainthood.
This story is about a very unusual day in the life of an extraordinarily virtuous woman who, having otherwise sacrificed life and limb for her family for years, had enough self respect and self esteem left to take advantage of a fleeting fortuitous circumstance and temporarily break out of the box of her usually studious and exemplary way of life. Her thriftiness had perhaps saved her family fifteen dollars a thousand times over throughout the years of her marriage. I am not so quick as others to cast a stone at her for one single, documented, isolated incident of non-puritan action in the 1890s when women were beginning to be thought of as more than chattel in a male-dominated society. Consider that Mrs. Sommers had likely been ordered by her husband occasionally to bring home a thirty dollar box of cigars or some other frivolity for him to enjoy with his buddies. I am moved, not to condemn, but to defend the honor of this heroine.
© 2009 Brian L Hunter