For the last few months, I’ve been privileged to participate in the Literary Wives series, a virtual book group, with some amazing women. We’ve read, reviewed, and discussed four books centering on wives within various types of marriages and time periods: American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld; The Paris Wife, by Patricia McClean; A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick; and The Aviator’s Wife, by Melanie Benjamin. We’re wrapping up our discussion with a final post before the others go on to commence part 2 of the series.
The focus of the reading and reviews was to examine the role of the wife in these novels, both how she viewed and defined herself and was viewed and defined by others. In my opinion, the wives in these novels suffered due to a lack of acknowledgement of their personhood. In some cases, this was a personal choice: for example, the choice Alice made in American Wife to continually keep her inner life, desires, and needs a secret from her husband. She chose not to assert herself in any meaningful way for reasons that are certainly problematic. But in other cases, the lack of acknowledgement of personhood came from the husband, and from the culture at large.
In general, the husband in each novel had more power and authority over the wife in question and used it to control her and to prey upon her emotions to such an extent that each wife felt responsible for her husband’s happiness and ability to use his gifts to his fullest extent. It is too easy to judge these women and say that they should have had more courage to stand up for themselves, to ensure their needs were being met in the marriage. However, it is the nature of woman to be a caregiver, to facilitate the development of life in all it’s aspects. By preying upon and taking advantage of this trait, the husbands in these novels forced each woman to choose between her own needs and his. It was not until much suffering had been endured that these women found ways to assert their own creative gifts, interestingly in each case through the inspired voices made real through the narrative of their individual experiences, as each of the books (except Goolrick’s) was told from the POV of the wife in question. In this way, the novel as artifact becomes a testament to and actualization of the voice that has been hidden, as well as the genesis of the creative power possessed by each wife. The merits and motives of each “voice” must be determiend by each reader; however, I generally found these written testaments powerful and hopeful, perhaps with the exception of Alice’s text, simply because I believe in the act of writing it she offered the ultimate act of betrayal in a marriage with betrayal as its foundation. I discuss this in more detail in my post on the novel.
The main point across the four novels is that it IS possible for a woman to be a generative force for life within a marriage — to be a good wife, mother, home-maker — but that she has a right to expect from her spouse support in exercising that generative power towards her own creative gifts, if she possesses the talent for it. Clearly both Anne and Hadley, in The Aviator’s Wife and The Paris Wife respectively, possessed great creative potential which they were forced to subsume due to their husbands’ inferiority complexes. Love given freely should not be afraid to allow each person to express themselves in the way true to their respective gifts and talents. As persons, we strive to be women and men first, perhaps spouses next, then, in some cases, parents. But these roles are not all there is to a person. Each man and woman is blessed with certain gifts and talents which must be actualized if they are to be a whole human being who contributes fully to the purpose for which he or she is created. The characters of the husbands and wives in these four novels are no exception, and this rule is played out successively in each narrative.
In my opinion, it is this central issue which is the larger significance across the novels. We are responsible for the talents given us and will be called to account for our stewardship, or lack thereof. How did we use our gifts for the good of others? To help our fellow man? To raise hearts and minds to think of higher things? To bring beauty into the world? By it’s very nature a marriage should contribute to this wholeness of persons and thereby to communion, between the spouses, within the family, and, through them, with the larger society. The books all depict marriages that are disorered and flawed — this is to be expected as humans are flawed; however, my main concern is that in none of the books was there any hope that marriage be otherwise (except perhaps in Hadley’s second marriage at the end of The Paris Wife, but we are given little detail about this, except the crucial fact that fulfillment has been found in true support and self-giving love which is not afraid). Interestingly, in three of the novels, the point is made that faith has been abandoned by the couples. The exception is a flagrantly shallow “conversion” by the husband in American Wife, but in this faith is only a tool, a way for him to win votes, and is in no way a means towards realizing wholeness with his spouse. One wonders, then, in what has hope, faith, and love been placed? If solely in another flawed human being, then it is no surprise the marriages remain empty and devolve into deeper and deeper darkness. Moments of grace occur over and over again and sometimes are realized and accepted; but more often than not, the opposite is true, and I find this persistent lack of possibility a bit depressing.
The hearts and minds of both spouses in the novels are ordered towards wrong ends. The husbands in the novels are completely self-absorbed and their self-image inherently tied to their work — as writer, politician, explorer, miser — (in American Wife, the husband was obsessed with leaving a “legacy” but it was such an empty one — a monument to his sense of self….nice) becomes an idol that crowds out any and all concern of others. The wives — perhaps with the exception of Alice — do express a tendency, even a yearning, towards self-sacrifice, often to a great and admirable extent, but it is at the expense of their own gifts and in the end is not life-giving, either to themselves or to their spouses. Love means being able to set limits and it means being able to say “no” when someone tries to hurt you, or tries to hurt themselves. In every marriage, the husband was hell-bent on self-destruction. With rare exception, the wife’s silence contributed to rather than allayed this tendency. To be of interest, and to raise the mind and heart above mere entertainment, the novelist is called to write the truth of human experience, in all its facets. One wonders whether the truth of a marriage based on the full recognition of personhood, committed to honest self-sacrifice and self-giving love, complete with all of its requisite pain and suffering and difficulty, with a goal towards accompanying the spouse on the road towards real, whole personhood, is to be found in the “wife” novels of the day? Elisabeth Leseur comes to mind as an example of this. . .
I’d like to thank my co-hosts for the opportunity to participate these last few months — it certainly has been eye-opeing and has provoked much to think about. Unfortunately, personal circumstances prevent me from continuing on with the group at this time. Please visit my co-host’s blogs — The Bookshelf of Emily J., One Little Library, and Unabridged Chick — to find out what they thought of the novels in part 1 and what is planned for part 2 of the series.