Literary Wives: The “Happy” Marriage?

The ironic title The Happy Marriage (2016), a novel by Tahar Ben Jelloun, is not as ironic as it seems. On the surface, “that’s the weak point of our marriage: the lack of happiness!” (p. 108). While the narrative from the perspective of an old artist, who has had a stroke, is about his “horrible wife” and his justified cheating, we eventually learn that this marriage does, in fact, end “happily.” However, his wife’s definition of happiness is not my definition of happiness in a marriage; nevertheless, that’s how the novel ends. And all’s well that ends well, right?

This book is the April pick for the Literary Wives Series, hosted by these bloggers.

Naomi of Consumed by Ink

Kay of What Me Read

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

Ariel of One Little Library

We attempt to understand and explore this question in the books we read for the series.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?




As I mentioned the book begins with the perspective of the husband. He complains about his wife and numbers his conquests. He is unfaithful, but has excuses because his wife seems to be a shrew. He tells of his efforts to attend couples’ therapy but she said, “I’m not crazy! If I’ve consented to go with you, it’s to show your psychiatrist how crazy, perverse, and monstrous you are!” (p. 65). She compared her husband to an ayatollah who prevented her from having a life of her own. Of course, his explanation is that they “haven’t had the same idea of what married life should be like,” making him seem more rational and truthful (p. 66). He describes violent episodes, threats of divorce, his own indiscretions, his suspicions, his failing health, and his disappointments. He doubts her fidelity and is jealous of a female friend of hers. He comes off as the victim, and his wife is a bully.

However, even in his diatribe against her, he describes love, yet he is unable to recognize it. He confuses lust with love, and therefore marriage is hard for him (and her) to endure and appreciate. “He worried every time his wife was late in coming home, or when she was out driving. He couldn’t bear to see her ill and would look after her and counsel her. Truth be told, even though he didn’t love her anymore, he still felt somewhat devoted to her, a kind of affection he couldn’t explain. One day, she’d broken her arm when she’d slipped on some snow. They’d been in Switzerland at the time. He’d run around like a madman to look for help, and needless to say he’d taken her to the hospital and had slept on a cot in the same room as her” (p. 185). That sounds like love to me. Comfortable and boring love, but long-term marriage love that is deep and abiding. Yet he cannot recognize it because he believes that lust is love.

Yet, the key to this novel is that the painter is an unreliable narrator. (And so is his wife!) We get her side of the story in the last third of the book, and from her perspective the marriage seems just as bad, but not so much her fault. She recounts many upsetting incidents and their fights. However, on the final page, she admits to love as well. She writes a rebuttal to his words, but ultimately confesses her care for him. “This will be my revenge, and it will travel down the path of goodness, kindness, and generosity. It will be born out of love and redemption. . . . I’ll submit to him and resign myself, in the hopes of carving myself a permanent niche by his side . . . I’ll do everything I can to make him into my object, my invalid, completely and utterly reliant on me and me alone. I will relish these moments” (p. 305). Her “revenge” is to take over his care as an invalid from the stroke and be as loving to him as possible. She has sent away the masseuse he was infatuated with and claimed her place as his wife.

While I’m not sure that is how I would find happiness in a marriage, from either perspective, I do appreciate the irony of the situation. That it is, after all, a “happy” marriage once they both learn to depend on each other. I’m not even sure that I have articulated this well, or portrayed the cleverness of the author in pitting these two narratives against each other, but it was executed well.

This novel was a difficult read, because reading about a faithless man complain about his wife is unsettling and unappealing. I had trouble understanding what the point of it all was at first; then I read the end. I was delighted to be reading a novel set in Morrocco and France and one written by a Moroccan author. I can see why Tahar Ben Jelloun is internationally acclaimed. This book is certainly the most “literary” in style of those we have read in the series so far.

22 thoughts on “Literary Wives: The “Happy” Marriage?

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  1. You’re much more convinced of their love than I am, Emily! I felt like they were both too caught up in themselves to have any more room to love each other properly. But, as you say, maybe this is their way of loving each other. I still have a hard time seeing it as “happy”.
    I did enjoy the challenge of this novel, though, and loved that we were reading a book set in another country (from us), by a well known Moroccan author!

    1. I agree! It isn’t the type of love or “happiness” that I envision. But I think that was the point trying to be made. It was definitely twisted!

    2. I agree… Definitely twisted (again, kind of like Gone Girl). Honestly, I didn’t really understand why the wife decided to stay at the end and transform into the sweet, submissive wife he wanted instead of just letting him go?

      1. I know, right? The only thing I could think of was that she was looking forward to having complete control over him. But I would think that would even get old.

  2. I agree with Naomi. I didn’t trust that ending very much. It almost seemed as if she was getting some revenge by having him under her power and not doing what he wanted, which was getting a divorce. Also, I had a hard time figure out what this book said about wives. It seemed too particular.

          1. I don’t think we can draw any overall conclusions about marriage in general from this novel. Unless you believe the comments to the effect that the men who are happy in their marriages are the ones who have totally given up. And that, of course, was coming from a very biased source as well as being insulting to women.

  3. Well, Emily, perhaps you’ve hit upon the reason I could barely stand to read this one. Perhaps I am just not literary. 🙂 It felt totally absurd to me and I felt tortured trying to read it! His writing (at least in this novel) didn’t resonate for me. And I admit, that first 75% with the painter whining and complaining, yet boasting about his many sexual conquests was so boring and infuriating for me. Okay, so we do agree on the fact that he confused lust for love. At least I did get that. This just felt way too absurd to me. I’d love to know what he expects readers to take away from reading it. Nice review as always! 🙂

    1. Oh, I don’t think it is about you not being literary. You are plenty literary! I hated the book too, but I was trying to see the deeper meaning, which I think was there. Sometimes books that best critique a culture or portray meaning aren’t necessarily fun to read.

      1. I am going to do a post soon about “literary.” In fact, I have ideas for several posts regarding terminology, classification, etc. I realize we need all that to some extent to be able to enable discussion and understanding, but I purposefully try not to use them, so I am now a bit surprised when I see them! Does that make sense? I guess I treat books the same way I treat people…we’re all in one great big family–the human family! I feel the same way about books. There are just some I am more interested in than others. I do feel this fit with my definition of literary in that it was symbolic. I admit that discussing it greatly improved my attitude toward it. And I do intend (provided I live long enough! Ha! Ha!) to read another of his books just to see if much of my reaction to this one was his writing style or not.

  4. So, I’m curious what anyone’s reactions were to the story of the wife eating her husband? Other than being weird, I thought that was interesting. It kind of reminded me of the Wife of Bath’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales—the point being that what women “really” want is to be in control. But I don’t think that’s true.

    1. I did mention it in my review. I felt Imane believed this was what had happened to the artist, or that this was Amina’s goal, to utterly control him, since Amina had just manipulated Imane by bribing her. Or…it could be a reference to the “dark arts” the indigenous Berbers were expected to use, and of course we know Amina did use them. Although the story was bizarre to me (it reminded my of The Crane Wife) it almost felt as if she was somehow trying to warn him. Those are my ideas.

        1. No worries! 😄 It just felt so absurd to me initially, then it seemed rather ominous, especially once I knew what Amina had done to Imane, and thereby to him. As if “it’s hopeless, she’s got total control.” Virtually everything in this book is wide open to interpretation! I hope that was his goal! 😄

    2. I saw that story as both fascinating and a foreshadow. It seemed to outline the way that women could claim agency within strict patriarchal cultures and marriages. It seemed to be what the wife did in the end, by “eating” her husband symbolically. She had control over him and decided to accept that as a “happy” marriage. Glad you brought this up. I had forgotten to!

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