Mrs. Sommers is “one who knew the value of bargains.” She is a very frugal woman whose family struggles to make ends meet, though we know that in her youth she belonged to a fairly well-off family. In the beginning of the story we learn that Mrs. Sommers has acquired $150, quite a large sum in the nineteenth century, and as she is thinking of how to spend it we see how selfless and responsible she seems to be: all the expenses are for nice things for her children—hats and quality shoes, new fabrics for new clothes—and the thought of her children looking fine and dapper is a happy one to her.
We can imagine that Mrs. Sommers is a very busy, very tired, woman—she has so many children to take care of! And she must always be on the lookout for bargains and sales, always looking for ways to save money, always sacrificing her own wants and needs for her children—on the day the story takes place, she has even neglected to eat lunch. And so it comes as no surprise when, confronted with a cheery saleswoman, a beautiful pair of silk stockings, and plenty of pocket money, she cannot resist the temptation to buy something nice for herself, for once.
And with this purchase the floodgates are opened, and she goes on what we would refer to as a “shopping spree.” She forgets all her plans for the children and makes selfish purchases—a new pair of gloves for herself, new shoes to match her stockings, a dainty dessert and glass of wine, a play…the stockings, along with a comfortable, carefree pre-marriage life, have awakened a need to care for herself, to pamper herself, to live as she used to in comfort and privilege, unconcerned about price or anyone under her care.
We see here an internal struggle between Mrs. Sommers’s personal needs and those of her children—for so long she has put others before herself, sacrificing any comforts she could have had to keep her children well-clothed and well-fed and without appreciable lack—a tendency that completely silenced her previous habits as a member of a wealthier society. With the acquisition of so much money, these old habits were awakened and the sacrifice of so many years has led her to perhaps go overboard in her “me-time,” indulging more than she would otherwise. And this is highlighted by the fact that she feels no remorse. She is desperate to escape her current life, now that she has tasted what it means to be free from financial constraints. As the man opposite her on the cable car observes, in her face is “…a poignant wish, a powerful longing that the cable car would never stop anywhere, but go on and on with her forever.”