Women and writing
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
Review with no spoilers, originally published on Good Reads.
The Wife is an excellent novel with which to assess one’s own moral compass. As a feminist, I appreciate the way in which the stark differences between the acceptance of male writers’ behaviour and successes and the few accolades associated with women’s writing are drawn. Some of the development and description of the characters, women and men, is quite cruel – deservedly so. In particular, male writers are shown as inflated egos with a penchant for infidelity. The main male writer character, is eventually outed as having large feet of clay. I say eventually outed, but for me the signals were very apparent, without spoiling the denouement. Female characters, despite their flaws, are shown in their frailty, as possible writers but with little appreciation or assistance (certainly in comparison with that afforded the men) and devoted wives who keep the structures strong for the ego driven men.
That being said, I then began to think about these women, and in particular, the wife. It is clear that the three children of the marriage are suffering from the nature of the parents’ partnership. In this case ‘the wife’ is as guilty of the damage wrought upon them as ‘the husband’. The son is a truly damaged person – and the only one who attempts to force the truth from his parents. Culpability remains an important focus to the end, with the journalist , who also seeks the truth, being thwarted (and criticised).
This novel makes the reader think about the nature of the patriarchal world that impresses upon us the value of men and their work and lack of value acceded to women. However, it also highlights the importance of individual action and culpability for the way in which personal relationships as well as, in this case, public ones, develop. I enjoyed the way in which I was forced to ponder the wife’s role in the damage to her family. The arrogance and unpleasantness of the husband hides this for most of the novel, but by the end what seem to be simple answers are not.
The Wife, spoilers.
The Wife – a ‘play’ on words? The way in which wives are depicted as no more, no less than ‘the wife’? Interestingly, the listings of novels with this phrase included in the title is immense. Sometimes she is a ‘good’ wife, she can be an ‘invisible wife’ or a ‘silent wife’ on one occasion, ‘the wife between us’. Should she be pleased that she is thus selected from the herd to become a wife who enjoys an addition to her title? Having read some of the novels, I suggest not. Although, to be fair to Mrs Castleman of The Wife, she could have deserved the additional descriptions. She is indeed silent, invisible, and good by turns. Invisibility is her most marked characteristic. And it is the one with which she is introduced. Her name, Joan, appears after 2% of the novel has been completed. Her husband, Joe, has been named earlier. However, it is Joan’s story, her decision that is made on that flight to Finland, and it is her reputation that has been stolen from her: she deserves naming from the start. Only her decision sets her apart from the comfortable to and fro in First Class from England to Finland. Joe Castleman is feted by the female flight attendant with offerings of food, Joan is an afterthought. Unlike Joe, who sees any and every offering as his right, she rejects both food and the attendant. Joan wants nothing of any second order adulation. Similarly, she also wants nothing of Joe: after this jaunt, she is going to leave her husband of ..years.
Those years are characterised by her lost writing career, and the burgeoning of her husband’s to this final conclusion – his winning the Helsinki Prize
Joan was Joe Castleman’s student in the writing course he headed at university.
Her introduction to him was his late arrival, announcement of his baby’s birth and his walnut eating habit. She became an acolyte, a critic of his writing (although either silently or with great attention to his ego) and eventually his wife. From reading Joe’s short story, which she found limited to suggesting changes to the pages from his draft novel, Joan becomes embroiled in Joe’s writing. Along with this is her entanglement in his reputation to his eventual success in winning the Helsinki Prize.
Early in the relationship with Joe, Joan is at a university reception where she meets a woman writer whose novel she promises to read. She is the recipient of the writer’s truthful, but devastating, account of the pitfalls of being an accomplished woman writer:
Good for you, if you can find it, she said. I’m afraid you’ll have to dig through lots of piles of loud maale songs of innocence and experience. And then maybe you’ll get into my little tale, buried at the bottom.
All around me , Castleman and the others protested, telling her how that wasn’t true, that her novelw was powerful in its own right, and blah, blah, blah.
Suddenly my professor said, oh come on, Miss Mozell, it can’t be as bad as all that.
And how exactly would you know, she asked him.
The woman writer’s comparison of a female author’s experience with that of a male author of similar ability – he is seen as accomplished, and revered, she is not – is rejected with examples of successful women writers. Some of the male ‘authorities’ even use one or two of them on their courses!
Later, Joan is quietly warned about attempting to enter the male world of successful authors:
Don’t do it…Don’t think you can get their attention…
She looked at me sadly, impatiently, as if I were an idiot…
The men who write the reviews, who run the publishing houses, who edit the papers, the magazines, who decide who gets to be taken seriously, who gets put on a pedestal for the rest of their lives, Who gets to be King Shit…
If you use that word [conspiracy] it makes me appear envious and insane…which I’m not. But yes, I guess you could call it a conspiracy to keep the women’s voices hushed and tiny and the men’s voices loud…
Don’t do it, … find some other way. There’s just a handful of women who get anywhere. Short story writers, mostly, as if maybe women are somehow more acceptable in miniature.
Perhaps Joan takes her advice and ‘finds some other way’. Joe Castleman does not have to be an accomplished writer to be revered. Joan does both for him: as a writer she critiques and largely writes his novels and, as a wife, she is a party to the reverence he achieves. The Helsinki Prize is ‘his’ greatest reward, to be followed by Joan’s plan to divorce him.
Joan and Joe’s children observe the writing relationship, their son suffering most from his awareness of its duplicity.
However, Joan prevaricates , even after Joe’s death:
Late at night, or during the day, he told me stories of things that had occurred to him, and I filed them away or took them out for reuse whenever the time came, and allowed an anecdote to be boiled, cooled and transformed into something recognizable but new. Something that would be mine, but would still always be partly his, too. it wasn’t fair , of course; it had never been fair, right from the beginning, fairness wasn’t what I wanted.
Possibly she will later be fair to herself?
Talent, I knew, didn’t just disappear from the earth, didn’t fly up into separate particles and evaporate . It had a long half life; maybe I could use it eventually. I could use parts of what I’d seen and done and had with him, making something vicious or beautiful or loving or regretful out it, and maybe putting my own name on it.
But for Joan to do so, Joe has to die, and Joan’s last words to the journalist who would like to expose their duplicity reflects Wolitzer’s connivance with the wife’s role:
Joe was a wonderful writer…And I will always miss him.
Graphics: Bing Photos