I will be focusing on two of Kate Chopin’s works, A Pair of Silk Stockings and Dï¿½sirï¿½e’s Baby. But, Before you can understand the stories you must first understand the writer and her social background.
Chopin lived in a period of history that both undervalued and objectified women. A girl belonged to her family until she was married, and after marriage she belonged to her husband. Women were expected to be adornments for their husband’s arm, like jewellery to act any differently was almost taboo. Furthermore the laws of the time restricted women as well, The Louisiana Code (article 1124) judged women “Incompetent of making a contract” and judged to be as competent as children and the mentally infirm!
Kate herself lived in a French-Creole society one of far greater constrictions and expectations of women. Women’s fidelity were not doubted and women were expected to be totally honest and truthful at all times they were not meant to keep secrets from other Creole women.
If a wife had a talent like painting or singing then she would not be credited for it, most likely her husband would be acclaimed as lucky.
Chopin’s life was a comfortable one speckled with tragic events her father died in 1855 when Chopin was only four years old. It may have been this release from the male oppression in her life that caused her to se how twisted the times really were, and may have caused her to write in the rebellious, feminist and passionate style she did.
The time she wrote in was one of tension, a clash of different cultures, a transition between traditional and modern. This was because of the four fold input; the American culture, the Southern culture, the French culture and the Afro-Caribbean culture brought by the slaves that were kept by the rich.
The first story I am going to discus is called “A Pair of Silk Stockings” it follows the story of “little mrs. Sommers”, this instantly belittles her making her seem small and insignificant. She finds “fifteen dollars” and this seems a “very large” amount of money to her suggesting that she is poor and when she puts it into her “porte-monnaie” (referring to the French Creole background) which is French for purse, literally meaning caries money. This makes her feel “important” in a way she “had not enjoyed for years” say that she may have had a better lifestyle before she married Mr Sommers and that she may have married beneath her.
It is shown that Mrs Sommers is a rational woman instead of going out straight away to buy things with this “large amount of money” she took “a day or two” to think about what she was going to spend it on, “speculation and calculation”. She talks about getting her young children may different things but all are cleverly conceived like buying “shirt waists” instead of whole shirts, she buys material with “beautiful patterns” to make her daughter, Mag, a dress rather than having to expend for the workmanship. She intends to buy them stockings and hats, and means not to buy anything for herself. The only gain she would get would be from second hand advantage like not having to do the “darning”, or the pride she would get from having a well presented “brood”. The use of the word brood presents the idea of Mrs. Somers acting like a preening bird, looking after her children, trying to keep them clean and presentable.
When Mrs. Somers actually goes shopping she realises that she has not eaten any “luncheon” because she was “getting the children fed”, cleaning the house and ” preparing herself for the shopping” this reiterates the point of Mrs. Sommers putting others before herself and looking after others. When she goes into the shop, she sits on the “revolving stool” “trying to gather her strength” as if composing herself before the task before her. Chopin noticeably mentions that Mrs. Sommers wears no gloves. This assures you that she was of a less than well off family as fashionable and well off would wear gloves. But this also works as a device to allow Mrs. Sommers to be catapulted into her journey of self-rediscovery (as it has already been hinted that she was more accustomed to a better life) It is because of the near poverty of not owning gloves to wear, that Mrs. Somers discovers the richness that she could have.
Chopin shows how tempting this other life is, by using the word “pleasant” this conveys feelings of comfort and pleasure. When The store attendant asks her if she would like to “examine there line of silk hosiery” she smiles, perhaps in irony, Chopin goes on to comment that Mrs. Sommers likens this item to that of “a tiara” or “diamonds” emphasising how these stockings are out of her price range. As Mrs. Sommers feels the stockings Chopin introduces the image of a snake “glide serpent like through her fingers” this could be a reference to the biblical scene in the Garden of Eden where the snake tempted Adam and Eve. This temptation compels Mrs. Sommers. When Chopin notes that Mrs. Sommers has “Two hectic red blotches” on her cheeks, she is showing Mrs. Sommer’s physical realisation that she has been denied everything, that she should have married into her own class.
When she find’s out there are more “eight-and-a-half’s” than any other size, and that they are all in different colours “light blue”, “lavender”, “black” and “various shades of tan” this gives Mrs. Sommers the choice that she has been denied for so long when Mrs. Sommers is next mentioned by name, Chopin actually calls her “Mrs. Sommers” rather than “Little Mrs. Sommers” as mentioned at the start of the story this shows that she is growing and deciding to be her own woman rather than having to always put her family first. When Mrs. Sommers buys the stockings, she puts them in her “Shabby old shopping bag”.
Mrs. Sommers putting the stockings in her “shabby old” bag is a metaphor for her putting luxury into her life. But, it “seemed lost in the depths of her” bag, showing that there is a great deal more luxury that could be put into her life. Then she “did not move in the direction of the bargain counter” which is a change from her normal routine that suggests that she intends to go on spending lavishly. When she takes the elevator, it shows not only moving away from her old life but also going up in the world. When she exchanges her old “cotton stockings” for new silk ones, it is like she is trying to climb into a new life. When Mrs. Sommers goes to “the shoe department” it is mentioned that she is fastidious.
Showing contradictory behaviour to when she would settle for anything that fitted as long as she could get it at a lower price. She also doesn’t mind if her boots cost “a dollar or two more” this is quite ironic as before she would have scrimped and saved just to save a few cents. Chopin then talks about Mrs. Sommer’s gloves. And how she always used to buy “bargains” Mrs. Sommers buys a pair of gloves and Chopin mentions that both Mrs. Sommers and the clerk of the store are “lost” in “admiration” this also makes you wonder how long it has been since Mrs. Sommers has felt worth of admiration and pretty.
Mrs. Sommers then expends on “two high priced magazines” which she certainly wouldn’t have bought before Chopin also mentioned how she had “been accustomed to them” when “she had been accustomed to other pleasant things” this is another reference to the “better days” of Mrs. Sommers life. Maybe Mrs. Sommers “carries them without wrapping” just to show her new “high priced magazines” to other fashionable ladies.
She also “lifted her skirts at crossings” (because the style at the time was long dresses that reached down to just above the ground, and would be lifted so as not to get the hems dirty) but when she “lifted her skirts” she shows her “stockings and boots” maybe she is deliberately doing so like with the magazines.
Chopin mentions how she had acquired a “sense of assurance” meaning that she feels far more comfortable in the new life she has created for herself. And feels much more at home with the “well dressed multitude” she is now likened to. Chopin Mentions how Mrs. Sommers is feeling hungry and how she would normally wait “until reaching her own home” and would have eaten “anything that was available” indicating again, how she would fight to save every penny. But her new found personality she decides to eat at a “restaurant” that she had “never entered” another reference to how she was restricted to a particular lifestyle. Chopin mentions how she had seen inside to “shining crystal” and “soft stepping waiters” she makes use of alliteration and the sibilant s to reinforce this point it is like Mrs. Somers was seeing a window to a better life( this is written in the past tense not the present like the rest of the story indicating that she is remembering rather than describing her feelings at that point)
When she enters she orders food that she would defiantly nit have eaten at home, “half a dozen blue points” (oysters) and other continental foods (probably because of the Creole background) Chopin shows that Mrs. Somers is enjoying herself by her utilisation of the word “leisurely”, and the way it is applied gives the impression that she is becoming used to her new look. When Chopin says that she was “cutting the edges of the pages” with a knife this is showing that she has changed greatly in these few hours, when before she wouldn’t have dreamt about doing this to the magazines already noted for being “expensive”.
Chopin also notes how Mrs. Somers considered that “the price made no difference” a complete reversal to her personality at the start of the story. “And the Crystal more sparkling” gives the impression that her senses are becoming heightened and that she is drinking in her environment, because she knows she wont be able to enjoy it for much longer. When she gives the waiter a tip he bows to her “like a princess of royal blood” this elevates her, and echoes the motif of “tiaras and diamonds” earlier in the story. When she goes to the play, she is referred to again as “little Mrs. Somers” indicating that she will be going back to her old lifestyle and that her “dream had ended”. Chopin ends the story with a Ambiguous ending, where Mrs. Somers is not actually said to go back to her old life or wish to leave it. All that is said is that she wishes the tram would go on “forever”
This ending is one applied by Chopin many times, where the reader is left to ponder as to the final fate of the protagonist, another example of this is in the awakening.
The second of Chopin’s stories I will talk about is Dï¿½sirï¿½e’s Baby it is based in a loosely Creole society. The main characters are Desiree and Armand although Madam Valmonde and La Blanche play small but nevertheless important roles as well. The story starts describing how Dï¿½sirï¿½e was found as a baby By Madam Valmonde and she took her into her own because “she was without a child of the flesh” meaning that she was unable to have a child of her own.
And by the use of the words “beneficial providence” you can tell she has been desiring a child for a long time and that Dï¿½sirï¿½e was an answer to her prayers. Then Chopin swaps back to the present tense, and describes Madam Valmonde’s near revolution as “she shudders” at the mere “sight” of L’Abri (L’Abri literally translating as the shelter). Chopin caries on to describe it as a “sad place” building a negative atmosphere around the building. Chopin mentions how Armand’s mother had “lived and died in France”, this is integral to the plot as Armand does not know the ethicality of his mother.
The phrase “during the old masters easy-going and indulgent lifetime” shows two things, firstly that Armand’s father was much kinder than him, and secondly, if you know the twist ending, that Armand’s mother was black and so his father may have been kinder to the black slaves.
Next Chopin portrays an image of beauty and maternity with a description of Dï¿½sirï¿½e clad in “soft white muslins and laces” lying, recovering the whiteness of the linen is a symbol of her pure white heritage. When Madam Valmonde sees Dï¿½sirï¿½e’s child she knows instantly that it is not purely white, it is (although she does not know it yet) about one quarter black (quadroon). Valmonde reacts to this instantly, trying to confirm that the baby is in truth, Dï¿½sirï¿½e’s. This shows how forward thinking Madam Valmonde is, she is already running through the connotations for Dï¿½sirï¿½e. She looks for conformation in Zandrine who offers none. Madame Valmonde asks what Armand thinks of the baby, and Dï¿½sirï¿½e says that he is “the proudest father in the parish” showing that he loves his child very much. This also shows that Dï¿½sirï¿½e is unaware of the child’s mixed ethicality.
Chopin shows how Having this child has Greatly affected the way he treats the slaves “since the baby was born” which is a complete change from his prior behaviour noted for being “strict” whereas after the baby, he even lets a slave off working for the day and calls him a “great scamp” where before he most probably would have beaten him (such behaviour would have been acceptable at the time as slaves were thought as a lesser life form). Dï¿½sirï¿½e then says that she is “so happy it frightens her” setting a atmosphere of foreboding at this point Dï¿½sirï¿½e appears happy and care free to the reader. Chopin says that Armand has a “dark face” setting up for the twist at the end of the tale. Chopin also mentions how Dï¿½sirï¿½e has the feeling that something is “menacing her peace” further strengthening the atmosphere of foreboding. And the fact that there is an “air of mystery among the blacks” shows that they are aware of the baby’s ethicality as well.
Then there is another abrupt change in Armand’s behaviour he starts leaving the house “absented from the home” and when he is there he avoids Dï¿½sirï¿½e and the baby showing contempt because he considers her to be of black heritage. And even Quadroons (1/4 black people) were enslaved.
To open Dï¿½sirï¿½e’s eyes to this fact La Blanche sends one of the “little quadroon boys” she has in her workforce to fan the baby, and also provide comparison for Dï¿½sirï¿½e. When Dï¿½sirï¿½e notices the she is “drawing through her fingers the long strands of silky brown hair” this is another image of her whiteness as “silky brown hair” is a Caucasian feature. Chopin states Dï¿½sirï¿½e’s feelings that a “threatening mist” that was “closing about her” increasing the dark, foreboding, cold atmosphere around her. When Dï¿½sirï¿½e finally realises she lets out a cry of shock “Ah” because of the rushing realisation that comes to her. Dï¿½sirï¿½e is unable to speak “no sound would come” showing her shock and bewilderment.
When she talks to Armand about it he is cold and indifferent, she calls his name in a way that would have “stabbed him if he was human” inclining that he is inhuman for his racist tendencies. Chopin goes onto describe a short but hurtful exchange where Armand tells Dï¿½sirï¿½e “you are not white”. after which Dï¿½sirï¿½e quickly realises what the “accusation meant” he could have her turned into a slave. Although she is more fearful of loosing Armand. She insists that she is white, she seizes “his wrist” and says ” look at my hand; whiter than yours” which is in fact the truth.
Armand, retorts “As white as Le Blanches” meaning the Quadroon slave mistress. Dï¿½sirï¿½e is hurt by this comment, and after a short argument she leaves on Armand’s Wishes this highlights, yet again, how men control the fate’s of the women they associate with. Like with A Pair of Silk Stockings Chopin leaved the ending open. Instead of returning to “the Plantation of Valmonde” she walks into the marshes wearing only a “thin white garment” showing again the purity of her whiteness. Chopin again notes how her hair is a Caucasian “brown”. Chopin notes how “she did not come back again” again a ambiguous exit for a character.
Unlike A Pair of Silk Stockings the story goes on and confirms what the reader should have concluded that Dï¿½sirï¿½e is, in fact, purely Caucasian. And Armand’s mysterious mother was black or more eloquently as Chopin puts it “belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery”
Chopin’s works cover many aspects of her life and times, how women are oppressed, how extreme prejudice was exercised upon the slaves, how women yearn for their freedom, in short she highlighted the stunted nature of her social background. A lot of Chopin’s work was thought provocative and groundbreaking. In truth she opened peoples mind’s to the possibilities of that the women and slaves could offer, and paved the way for other woman’s and human rights protesters. Her style of writing is perfect. She writes in a manner that portrays the story clearly and descriptively while giving clues and hints, to the attentive reader, that give far greater depth and richness to her creations.