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.