Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!
- Ariel at One Little Library
- Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J.
- Kay at What Me Read
- Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors
- Kate at Kate Rae Davis; Reading Culture, Finding God
- Carolyn at Rosemary & Reading Glasses (on break)
- Cecilia at Only You (on break)
- Audra at Unabridged Chick (on break)
The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility. Just like our marriage…
After years of Joan feeling stifled and under the shadow of her well-known and successful husband, she has decided to end their marriage. She has gone with him on this last trip, the pinnacle of his career, to receive the Helsinki Award for a life-long contribution to literature. Then she’s going to break it to him.
But how has she gotten to this point? Being a promising creative writing student herself, how did she end up in this situation for so long?
1) Joan met Joe when she was one of his students. From a very early point in their relationship, she was in awe of him and wanted to please him. And it continued, became a habit.
I was meek, I had no courage, I wasn’t a pioneer. I was shy. I wanted things but was ashamed to want them. I was a girl, and I couldn’t shake this feeling even as I had contempt for it. This was the 1950s, and then it was the sixties, and by this time Joe and I had ironed it all out; we had a rhythm going, a style, a way of life together.
2) When it came to her own writing career, for many years she believed that it was next to impossible for women to become successful writers. She gets this message early on, as a student, from a semi-successful female writer at the time (1950s).
“Don’t do it,” she said again. “Find some other way. There’s only a handful of women who get anywhere. Short story writers, mostly, as if maybe women are somehow more acceptable in miniature.”
3) At the beginning of their relationship, Joe pretty much told her that living their lives any other way (i.e. Joan the successful writer and Joe the husband of a successful writer) was unacceptable.
“What am I supposed to do, be your little houseboy? Sit here and wash the clothes and cook a crown roast while you become a literary sensation?”
To which I say… why not? (Except, perhaps, I’d rather have a lasagna.)
Joe’s not made out to be a ‘bad guy’; we’re told that he loves his wife and he loves his children. But his actions don’t match up. We’re reminded of the era, and the expectations of men and women of this era. But is that an excuse? He is primarily concerned with himself, but doesn’t recognize it or realize the impact of his actions (or non-actions). It’s interesting that I have read two books recently in which the husband/father is an egotistical writer (the other being Swimming Lessons). If you throw in Hemingway (from our last Literary Wives read), that’s three.
There were moments during our marriage when Joe seemed unaware of his power, and those were the moments when he was at his best.
Joe once told me he felt a little sorry for women, who only got husbands. Husbands tried to help by giving answers, being logical, stubbornly applying force as though it were a glue gun. Or else they didn’t try to help at all, for they were somewhere else entirely, out walking in the world by themselves. But wives, oh wives, when they weren’t being bitter or melancholy or counting their beads on their abacus of disappointment, they could take care of you with delicate and effortless ease.
Hmm… sounds like an insult wrapped up in a compliment. But mostly just an insult. However, it gives us an idea of what he thinks of women/wives and their role.
This question can be answered by using nothing but quotes from the book. Joan tells us exactly what she thinks. And it’s not all bad… In the end it’s a question of how much ‘bad’ she is willing to take along with the ‘good’.
I was the wife. I liked the role at first, assessed the power it contained, which for some reason many people don’t see, but it’s there.
To please (even motherhood was driven by this)…
My desire to have a baby was swaddled in the need to make Joe happy.
Wives are meant to be sources of comfort…
Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives. Wives tend, they hover. Their ears are twinned sensitive instruments, satellites picking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaction. Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies. We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else.
Whenever I was nursing, I felt as if there was nothing else in the world I needed to be doing. It didn’t matter to me in those moments that I had no career of my own, no standing in the world.
We gave them everything we had. All our possessions were theirs. Our children were theirs. Our lives belonged to them. Our weary, been-through-the-mill bodies were theirs, too, though more often than not they didn’t want them anymore.
Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream up blueprints, recipes, ideas for a better world, and then sometimes lose them on the way to the crib in the middle of the night, on the way to the Stop & Shop, or the bath. They lose them on the way to greasing the path on which their husband and children will ride serenely through life.
Putting up with infidelity…
I ignored it whenever I could. It never occurred to me to say, Okay, here’s your part of the deal: Control yourself…. But they can’t, these men, can they? Or can they, and we simply don’t require them to?… What if he left? I knew I didn’t want that, so why harangue him since he seemed incapable of change?
The generational gap…
In her worldview [Joan’s daughter], bad marriages were simply terminated, like unwanted pregnancies. She knew nothing about this subculture of women who stayed, women who couldn’t logically explain their allegiances, who held tight because it was the thing they felt most comfortable doing, the thing they actually liked… A figure you never strove toward, never worked yourself up over, but simply lived beside season upon season, which started piling up like bricks spread thick with sloppy mortar. A marriage wall would rise up between the two of you, a marriage bed, and you would lie in it gratefully.
Which of these quotes resonates with you? Which have you had experience with? Which ones ring true, and which ones don’t?
On the first Monday in April: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Theresa Fowler