What exactly does it mean to be a wife? From what we’ve read in the Literary Wives series over the last few months, it means (from my interpretation) that one is or must be deceitful. The theme of deceit runs through all of the novels we’ve read so far, and I’m not sure what to make of that.
As a review, we read American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick, and The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin. (Click on the titles to see my individual posts on each one.)
In American Wife, we saw deceit through Alice Blackwell’s inner life. She is married to Charlie, a man without much control and who ends up becoming president. (The couple is based loosely on George W. and Laura Bush.) All along, she has ideas and opinions that differ from his, especially politically, and although he knows this up front, it seems that she suppresses a lot of her feelings in order to keep peace and to support him. It is both admirable and sad. What about her own convictions? Shouldn’t Charlie be willing to hear those and “allow” her to act on them without throwing a tantrum?
In The Paris Wife, the deception seems to be mostly Ernest Hemingway’s problem. He isn’t true to Hadley and it deeply hurts her. But I see some self-deception that extends into her marriage relationship. She does everything she can to support Ernest’s writing at the expense of her own interests. True, she doesn’t have the ambition that he does, but she still has parts of herself that are uniquely hers and that are worth pursuing. Instead, his priorities (including his affair) interrupt her attempts to hold a piano concert, and she begins to take on his identity, even wearing her hair like his. This deceives him into believing that the world does revolve around him, but it also deceives Hadley into believing that she’s being a “good” wife instead of becoming self-actualized and therefore an equal partner in an equal marriage. I won’t blame this all on her, however.
In A Reliable Wife, the theme of deceit is so prominent that it is palpable. Catherine begins the arranged-through-a-newspaper marriage with the intent to kill Ralph. As the narrative progresses, we find out that she is in cahoots with Ralph’s estranged son. The whole story is laced with deceit, and if you ask me, the results aren’t kind to any of the characters. Perhaps such a twisted beginning can lead to love (or lust, as the case may be), but overall, we learn that deceit in this novel doesn’t lead to pleasant family gatherings.
In The Aviator’s Wife, we see much of the same deceit that Alice engaged in. Anne Lindbergh is a person that her husband does not really know. In some ways, it is deceitful for her to keep her thoughts to herself (like during the Nazi incidents), but her husband is also aloof and uninterested in her inner thoughts. In many instances, she is “forced” to deceive him in order to keep the peace and to avoid controversy. Ultimately, we find out that Charles was hiding the biggest secret of all, other families on another continent.
This leads to the fact that the husbands were all equally deceitful. And when I say “deceit,” I don’t necessarily mean anything sinister, although some of these cases certainly involve such intents. However, the deceit lies in the fact that all of these people are ultimately alone with themselves. They may be married, but all of them have a different, inner life that nobody else knows about, not even their spouses.
And now I extend this idea to all of us. I dare say we are all inner beings with “secret” lives. I know in talking with my husband a few days ago about communication, we hit on the idea that we both have inner thoughts that we just don’t share with each other, but we sometimes assume that other person already knows what we were thinking or feeling. This can make marriage difficult, but the truth is that we all practice deceit in one way or another.
So I don’t think the deceit of these wives is anything that can or should be fixed. It may not be possible for them (or us) to completely open ourselves up and display every thought or emotion or whim. That’s not how things work. And that’s okay.
But I would’ve liked to see some of the women act on those private thoughts. I would’ve liked to see them model for us what Shakespeare meant when Polonius said: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
This ends my thoughts on the Literary Wives series as it originally began; however, the good news is that we are continuing the series with a few new faces. We will also be reading and posting about a “wife” book every other month. We would love for you to join us in reading and talking about the upcoming books.
For October 1, we will be reviewing Ahab’s Wife.
For December 1, we will read The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress.
Please visit the following blogs for other perspectives on all of the wives books we have read so far.
Please welcome the following bloggers to the series.
Carolyn O. of Rosemary and Reading Glasses
After five years in graduate school, Carolyn O is on hiatus to be the read-at-home-parent to her small son. She works as an editor, proofreader, and writer on the side, and hopes to return to teaching soon. She loves used bookstores, early modern drama and poetry, feminism, and anything Joss Whedon creates. Her twitter handle is @Oh_Carolyn.
Cecilia of Only You
Cecilia teaches writing and self-presentation skills to international professionals by day and night (the curse of time zone differences) and in between squeezes in some reading and writing of her own. Her reading tastes are pretty eclectic, though she loves literary fiction and memoir most of all, and works by women and international writers in particular. The best part of her day is the end-of-the-day book club that she shares with her 9 year old son. You can follow her on twitter @Onlyou_cecilia or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/onlyoublog.
Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors
Lynn is an avid (some might say “obsessive”!) reader, former Borders bookseller (my dream job!), and now blogger of books and reviews! Her only limitation to reading and posting more often is that necessary full-time job! She is mother to three sons, soon-to-be 10 (yes, 10!) grandchildren, and one beautiful and “purr”fect gray kitty, Smokie. Oh, and perhaps most importantly, she can count one of the kindest, most caring, and complex men she’s ever known as her full-time partner and husband! Life is good!
Audra, Ariel, and I will also continue participating. Here’s a reminder about us.
Ariel of One Little Library
Ariel is an editor who will soon be trading her freelancing days for the life of an in-house editorial assistant at Corwin Press. A literature enthusiast, she likes heroines full of gumption and conflicts fraught with ethical dilemmas. Her favorite book is and always will be Jane Eyre.
Audra of Unabridged Chick
Audra is a 30-something married lesbian with a thing for literary fiction and historical novels. An Air Force brat, Audra’s love of reading was nurtured by her family’s numerous national and international moves. Audra studied anthropology and geography as an undergrad. Professionally, she has worked in the non-profit sector for the last ten years.
And of course, me: Emily J.
Emily is a Ph.D. student studying professional communication who has worked as an editor and a composition instructor. She is the mother of two little girls and loves chocolate and ice cream. The thing she wants most right now is a day in bed with a good book, preferably fiction.
I’ll be curious to know if there are novels out there in which the wife is able to remain authentic yet connected and accepted in her marriage. I’m reading one right now in which the wife feels she has to choose, and she chooses her self, but it means abandoning her family. But I wonder, too, if this conflict makes for better stories, and stories of happy, fulfilled wives don’t quite make the bookshelves at stores. Interesting analysis, Emily!
And I’m looking forward to the series!
I totally agree. I really want to see a wife who doesn’t have to choose between being herself and being her husband’s companion. But I suppose the nature of relationship is that we all have to compromise? I suppose I wouldn’t learn anything from my husband and wouldn’t admire him so much if I always got my way.
Of course! All great stories have conflict (and resolution). Happy, perfect wives don’t have much to offer in that sense do they? 🙂
Ha, I didn’t mean to state the obvious 😉
Oh, no I didn’t mean to sound like that! But I did. I just meant, yes, you reminded me of that and how ironic it is that I would complain of their deceit yet that is what makes the novels work!
No worries! I also read my comment again and thought I sounded kind of silly. I actually had a thought behind it, but didn’t articulate it nearly well enough. I was thinking that it must be hard for us to find or see ourselves in these novels about wives (assuming, that is, that we are now fortunate enough to be in healthier and more authentic and respectful marriages than these women we are reading about), since difficult marriages make for more interesting (and more marketable) stories. But then again, if we allow ourselves to, maybe we *can* see some parts of ourselves or our former selves, however small, in all these novels as well, since the themes of freedom, fidelity, sacrifice, etc. are universal. I should have taken the time to write all of this the first time around! 😉
I like that you picked up on deceit throughout the series. I hadn’t really noticed that! It is very true that we’re all “alone with [our]selves.” My husband and I have to remind each other often that we can’t read minds. Do you think better communication would have made these literary wives’ marriages/lives better? If they were more open and shared with their husbands?
In some ways, yes I think communication would have improved these marriages, but on the other hand, the husbands had just as much responsibility in this and sometimes they were the reasons the women stopped talking or sharing their thoughts. It would be hard to be open with somebody like Lindbergh, who didn’t want to hear it, or Hemingway, who only wanted to hear about himself. Also, sorry about not posting according to your suggested questions. I forgot about them until late last night (argh!) and now I’ve lost them and this will have to do! I hope it was in line with what we are doing. 🙂
No worries! The questions were just a suggestion. 🙂 I think your post is awesome and totally in line. And you’re right about the husbands—they’re definitely equal players in it!
I have really enjoyed reading the posts in the Literary Wives series. I would really love to join you all. But, alas, I won’t have much time during the coming months. I look forward to reading your posts though. It is an interesting series.
Thanks, Grace. I hope you can at least weigh in on the conversation! I’m hoping myself that I’ll find enough time for this since school is starting again soon. 🙂
Emily, it just makes me more delighted that I married the one who said yes to me. By the way, yesterday was our 28th anniversary, so she has not grown too tired of me. Thanks for sharing your partners at the end. It is nice to see the faces. I did not see a deceitful wife among them. All the best Emily J. BTG
Thanks, BTG. Happy anniversary to you and your wife!
Reblogged this on Brianne' s Library and commented:
Thanks for your thoughtful analysis, Emily! Deceit was definitely at the core of each of these books, though like Ariel, I don’t believe I’d actually thought of it in those terms! I admit I was shocked by Charles Lindbergh’s deceit! I would agree the “imperfections,” to put it mildly, within these marriages are what make the books so interesting (Okay, all except for Reliable Wife which I still really dislike, period!), and truly, I have only known of one marriage that I believed to be healthy for both partners and one didn’t control the other…and I’ve lived 57 years! Kinda sad, when you think about it! But it is life…and we humans by definition are imperfect! Hopefully, we all find happiness in our lives at some point, though realize each and every day won’t be ALL happiness!
It is sad that so many marriages aren’t controlling. It does show how imperfect we all are and just how hard marriage is because of our own pride and selfishness.
Love the deceit them you focus on — it is absolutely central to all four novels — and also the link with communication. This is really important. Though communication is a two-way street and, as you suggest, the majority (all?) of the husbands weren’t really interested in anything outside themselves….. One thing crossed my mind as I read your post — we often think of deceit as a meditated action, something we do or practice knowingly, purposively. But there are occasions in the novels, with Hadley and Anne specifically, in which it seems like the deceit — lack of communicating inner thoughts, etc. — is less purposive and more like a defense mechanism, a means of self-protection, a way to keep the most vulnerable part of the self from getting deeply wounded. In that case, is it still deceit? Or something else?
Thanks for so many great posts and reflections, Emily. I’ll look forward to reading the next phase. 🙂
I’m not sure about that. I had the same thought, that if one isn’t trying to deceive, but is instead protecting oneself or one’s sanity, is it still deceit? Can one be deceitful without meaning to? I guess I don’t know. 🙂 I suppose we all deceive ourselves, mostly without intent. There must be a better word to describe this.
I agree…another word to describe this particular conundrum would be helpful. But your point about deceiving ourselves is appropriate. To live in illusion — to refuse to be disabused of it, for whatever reason — is a manifestation of deceit, however we try to rationalize it. 🙂