Let’s try to sketch an outline of the kind of realism that was emerging in the United States at the close of the 19th Century with the rise of urbanism and capitalist culture. I’d like to do that by looking at the figure of Mrs. Sommers, or reconstructing a kind of profile from the bits of information we get in the short story “A Pair of Silk Stockings” by Kate Chopin. The nebulous past of Mrs. Sommers is a hazy image of high-priced magazines, flaneuristic promenades and fitting and elegant clothes. The arrival of a Mr. Sommers, which is significantly left out of the narrative focus, has apparently reduced her to “little Mrs. Sommers”, living in austere conditions with her children. The diegetic time of the story finds her with the prospect of a small fortune of fifteen dollars that presents to her as a mirage in which she can momentarily shelter. This however does not initially change her set of mind, still considering the use of this money in terms of investment: buying yards of percale (a cheap fabric like the one Dreiser’s Carrie uses at the beginning of her narrative), un-expensive shoes, a gown, some sailor hats and a pair of new stockings.
The brand of realism Chopin fashions does not showcase a particularly detailed depiction of time and space. A new center of narrative attention seems to be coming in vogue at the turn of the nineteenth century. Poe’s city mysteries or the coming together of heterogeneity in Whitman’s city lyrics recede as the “the new secular and ‘disenchanted’ object world of the commodity system” (Jameson, 152) comes into the foreground. In the scarce four pages of Chopin’s story we get a sense of time and desire measured in relation to mindless consumerism. The narrative, as Mrs. Sommers own perception of time, seems to dissolve into an ever-present continuum. “She had not time–no second to spare to the past. The needs of the present absorbed her every faculty. A vision of the future like some dint, gaunt monster sometimes appalled her, but luckily tomorrow never comes.”
In her eagerness to go out shopping Mrs. Sommers forgets eating something, which results in a weakness that becomes symbolic of her waning selflessness and her desire to succumb to a capitalist wish fulfillment of commodity. The well staged appearance of the silk stockings is what does the trick and sends her into a frenzy of egoist mechanical consumerism: “She wore no gloves. By degrees she grew aware that her hand had encountered something very soothing, very pleasant to touch.” Here the reader is not only asked to draw a mental image of the stockings but to reconfigure them as an object of desire. By the act of wearing her new stockings, together with matching boots and silk gloves, she recovers a sense of belonging to the crowd and, in her mind, space is transmuted into an indistinguishable mass of “other places where money might be spent.” In this new branch of realism, the idea of voyeurism is also reversed. Mrs. Sommers does not want to see as to be seen eating in a fancy restaurant and reading a magazine, or boarding a cable car with her shopping bags until the transient illusion of capitalist Utopia finally dissolves.
By Yannick Bautista