What does it mean to be a wife? How does being a wife impact a woman’s identity?
These are the core questions we address in a bi-monthly in a project called Literary Wives. We read novels with an eye on what they have to add to our understanding of what it means to be a wife and a woman.
Our most recent pick: How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman. Check out other thoughts and reviews on the same novel from Literary Wives bloggers:
- Ariel of One Little Library
- Emily from The Bookshelf of Emily J.
- Lynn from Smoke & Mirrors
- Kay from What Me Read
- Naomi from Consumed by Ink
If you haven’t yet read it, be warned that this post does contain *spoilers.*
How to Be a Good Wife follows Marta, a housewife who laments her recently emptied nest.
The title is from the book that her mother-in-law gave her. When Marta was newly wed, her husband’s mother taught her all about how to clean and cook, with exacting standards. Marta memorized the book and quotes from it in her thoughts regularly. The instructional book is what you would expect — the wife’s role is to provide a clean and peaceful home that is entirely oriented around the husband. Marta’s mantras are impossible standards to live by, but she’s apparently been doing so for over two decades.
We learn early on that Marta has recently stopped taking her pills. Hector, her husband, worries and begins to hand-feed them to her; she feigns swallowing and spits them out. Much of the narrative centers around this: how much do we trust what she sees and experiences? What is real? Did she really need the pills, or were they sinister repressing-devices? Was she happier on them, or is it better to be free and know the truth?
Marta begins to regularly see a girl around the house, who is trying to reveal something to her. I found this plot device somewhat frustrating; it takes Marta way too long to figure out that the girl is herself. Still, it functions as a plot device, giving us glimpses into her past in a way that feels authentic to the way memory often hits: not chronologically, not necessarily tied to the present moment, drawing us away from what’s happening in the room.
Marta keeps seeing the girl starved, trapped in a room. Eventually, she realizes her truth: Hector abducted her, locked her below the house, starved her and made her dependent on him, and then feigned rescuing her in order to make her his wife. His friend supplies memory suppressing pills.
But there’s always this reliability question lurking underneath: is she clinically psychotic? Were the pills actually suppressing paranoid tendencies that are spiraling out of control? Is her mind telling this narrative instead of addressing the real one: that her husband, whom she honestly loved, has been having affairs? This is all further complicated by her son’s inability to find any information on a woman named Elise (which Marta claims is her real name) being abducted. Frustratingly, we never find out of the son looks beneath the house for the hidden prison. We can safely assume he either hasn’t looked or that he did and found nothing.
I was mentally screaming at Marta to figure things out, but Chapman is such a great writer that I was happy to keep reading. Of course she doesn’t get it, I consoled myself. She’s been on drugs forever. So I sped through pages, willing her to figure it out, eager to see what she would do.
The story really opened up for me when I started reading through the lens of Literary Wives’ core question — What does this say about the experience of being a wife?
Because it’s not just about this one woman’s suspicions.
It’s about all of us who married, and especially those of us who married young or during times of stress and dependence.
The scariest part of this novel isn’t the pills or the flashbacks or the questioning of what’s real. The scariest part is that we are all Marta.
We all end up, to some extent, in a life that is duller than we had hoped. We all find that our childhood dreams have drifted far away. We all find ourselves in somewhat stereotype roles, perhaps in sterile homes — physically or emotionally.
Marta highlights some of the unspoken reasons we marry: parental death or illness, a feeling of reliability and security in the midst of uncertainty, a sense of being cared for when one isn’t able to care for herself.
Marta exemplifies the many women who move from the isolated dependence of their parents’ home to the isolated dependence of their husband’s home. The many women who replace the perfectionism of schoolwork with the perfectionism of housework. The women who lack job qualifications and are financially dependent on their husband. The woman who lack a felt sense of self-reliance, having never lived on their own and for their own desires and purposes, and their husband’s dreams become their own.
Whether or not Marta was ever abducted and held captive is beside the point.
We, the reader, can never know whether she was imprisoned or whether she chose to enter marriage as “freely” as any other young woman.
Rather, what is central to the novel, especially if we understand Marta as an archetype for wifeliness, is her felt experience. She feels as though she was made to become dependent on her husband. As though factors beyond her control conspired to make her dependent on this man. And she feels that as a result of her dependence, she no longer knows her true identity.
This is the novel’s answer to the question of what it means to be a wife: to have become dependent and confused in the obscurity and foreignness of the wifely identity.
The pills, then, we can understand as a stand-in for patriarchy.
The novel’s foundation is on the question of What happens when a wife can’t swallow patriarchy anymore? What might a wife discover about herself and her captor-husband if she refused to ingest patriarchy?
She might begin to get in touch with her own desires and dreams. She might begin to feel that she has participated in her own imprisonment. She might blame her husband for the entire patriarchal system.
Upsetting the status quo is the real source of terror and thrill here.
A few words about the ending.
The final sentences leave us at the seaside beside Marta’s clothes. It harkens back to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, in both content and ambiguity. There is no closure in either novel — anyone who is certain of their response reveals more about their heart, hope, and despair than they do about the text.
Many readers of How to Be a Good Wife will believe that Marta committed suicide. There is plenty of evidence to support this: she had, after all, nearly drowned herself once before. And we don’t see her again after she swims out.
But I’m not entirely convinced.
There’s part of me that still hopes this is a baptismal dive.
There’s part of me that hopes that Marta dives into the water and emerges, in a different place, somehow a reborn woman, ready to live the life she thought was beyond her reach. I like to imagine she travels. I imagine she’s messy. And I imagine she dances.
In the comments…
Do you ever feel out of touch with the person you were before you married? What dreams have you let die? In what ways has your world narrowed?
What would happen if you stopped “swallowing the pill”?
If you’re interested in joining us next time, our October read will be American Housewife by Helen Ellis.
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