Why does everything (books mostly, that is) sound so interesting? They all beckon and call out. As much as I try and keep them in order and assure them that eventually 'I will get to you, too', they just won't be ignored. Remember those lovely little Penguin Black Classics? I meant to read them with some regularity this year, but it has been more miss than hit. I have had this urge to read more Classics (classics with a big C, if you know what I mean), but Classics do require some attention and dedication. This is the beauty of all those books (my core set has eighty of them), they are small bites of bigger works. Just a taste or a tease (since inevitably I always want to then pick up the larger work or more works by the same author) to satiate a desire.
My short story reading has also been more miss than hit this year. I have not only wanted to read more stories but longer Classic works. I have been thinking perhaps some fairy tales or myths. In the end I decided, since I have also been wanting to reread Kate Chopin, to pick one of the books that contains short stories. How convenient, then, that my set has a volume that contains five of her stories, A Pair of Silk Stockings. A good short story writer can tell a very good story, one where you really feel like you have been somewhere and done something. But a really, really good short story writer will also tell one that is thoughtful, and where you can find more meaning beneath the surface.
I read the stories with an eye towards just needing a good story, but also to get a sense of place, and you can't beat Kate Chopin in that desire. She does place and atmosphere so well. I know she does far more than that. Alas, I offer no criticism, just a feeling for where I went through those pages, but with Kate Chopin I think she turns a razor sharp eye towards showing the hypocrisy and cruelty that Society can inflict on others. She wrote about race and gender and how in each case Society shaped these identities and how individuals pushed back and tried to find their place in Society.
"Désirée's Baby" is a wonderful story about a woman who was orphaned as a baby but raised in a respected Bourgeois household. She is beautiful and when an aristocratic and wealthy man rides by and sees her he falls instantly in love. They marry and have a child. However, as the child begins to fill out and get bigger he shows signs that perhaps he is mixed blood, a Créole. Of course the husband assumes that Désirée must have been the result of a mixed union, and utterly unacceptable to him. I won't tell you how it ends, but will just say that rushed judgements might well come back to haunt you.
Another story of Society's hypocrisy is "Miss McEnders". I should never be surprised when someone who tends to take the moral highground ends up being guilty of the behaviors they are railing against. Miss McEnders is fast to point the finger at those she believes to be acting without morals, those who have made poor choices but live with them. And in the end she should perhaps look to her own house and clean it first. Or simply recognize human fallibility.
The ending is a bit tragic in "The Story of an Hour". I have read this one before and there is a wonderful subversive quality to it despite the ending. I have read that this story is one that is most often anthologized (It is quite short and you can read it here yourself). Mrs. Mallard gets the news that her husband has died in an accident and even as she begins to mourn his death she also thinks of her new found freedom. At that time and that place and perhaps in that level of Society she truly can gain happiness and independence. But then, at the time this was published a woman being happy at the death of a repressive husband might have been a little too controversial. I can imagine this would make for some good discussions.
"Nég Créol" felt very much like a character study to me, though I suspect there is more at play in this story on a variety of levels. Old Chicot was once a slave (or had been in service to before the Civil War) to a distinguished family. He still holds a certain respect and admiration for this fine family despite his now much lowered and impoverished circumstances. And despite his own poverty he still manages to help someone even in worse circumstances than himself. Is this the case since the woman is one of the very last to have a connection with the family he formerly served? Such a very short story that seems superficially just a study of race, class and identity.
The last story, and the titular story, "A Pair of Silk Stockings" is my favorite of the bunch, and again I think it can be 'read' in a variety of ways. Fictional characters always must pay for their transgressions. Particularly Chopin's heroines (think of The Awakenings Edna Pontellier, of which this story might be a precursor). The protagonist, who was once a member of a better Society, has had a bit of a windfall and her purse is stuffed with cash. She thinks first and foremost of her children--better shoes, some material for new dresses, stockings. All for the children. She always thinks of the children first. She has even forgotten to eat on this day and finds she feels somewhat faint. In the store she sits down at a counter to regain a little energy and finds before her a most elegant pair of decadent silk stockings in a multitude of colors. Something she has not owned for a very long time. We all know what Society thinks of mothers who buy silk stockings over shoes for their children, right?
A mere 56 pages and such a bounty. I really do love these little Penguins. I am going to try and reach for them more often. As a matter of fact, after a little reflection I have pulled out a story from The Tales of 1,001 Nights (I have all three volumes and have long wanted to start reading--just one a day. It would take years to get through them all, but had I done so when the desire first appeared, I might be finished by now!). But for now, just one tale--"Sindbad the Sailor". I'll share my adventures soon.