Marriage and Identity in “How to Be a Good Wife”

Review of Chapman's " How to be a Good Wife " and reflections on what it reveals about marriage and identity - read on

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:

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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13 Comment

  1. Kay says: Reply

    You drew some overall conclusions from this novel that I didn’t expect, but they are very interesting and worth considering. I don’t think I have quite as deep a cynicism about marriage, though.

    1. Kate Rae Davis says: Reply

      It’s definitely not my experience of marriage (though if I had married a previous boyfriend then I could see how this could have been my experience). Like all art, it’s just one perspective, right?

  2. Wow—I love the deep connections you made. I can certainly see how the pills are symbolic of the patriarchy. Marta’s case is EXTREME, but then hyperbole is an incredibly effective literary device for revealing the subtler lessons that we might miss in everyday life.

    The questions you asked are super interesting, too. In Marta’s case, it was clearly the right decision to stop swallowing the pills. She freed herself from an abusive situation. But I know not every situation is like that… I got married at 21, and then got divorced a couple years ago at 25—precisely because I saw my world narrowing very quickly and I panicked. You might say that I stopped swallowing the pill, but the freedom/clarity that comes with that has its own limitations, too. I can be more “myself,” but I am also more alone. I’m still figuring out how to find balance between my individuality and my need for connection and companionship; there’s got to be some sacrifice somewhere, right? It’s not that I regret it; it’s just that my thoughts on this topic are a lot more ambiguous and nuanced than they were before I got divorced. That’s why I stopped reading the LitWives books for a while… and it’s also why I’m back!

    Your review certainly made me think!! I’m so glad you’ve joined us. 🙂

    1. Kate Rae Davis says: Reply

      I’m glad I did, too! This is such a great group of reader-writers.

      You have me thinking with your question of whether it was right for Marta to stop taking the pills. If we read the whole thing on this allegorical level, she freely entered into it as much as a young, broken woman can. He cares about her well-being and is concerned when she stops behaving the way she always has. The only problematic part of the marriage, in that case, is that he is maybe having an affair (or a series of affairs), and that it’s rooted in patriarchy. Which maybe further heightens the sense that it doesn’t require overt abuse for a marriage to feel like prison.

      Which is all to say … maybe there’s more here about our “non-abusive,” patriarchal first marriages than we might want to think. (My first marriage ended in my mid 20s, too. In part because I couldn’t keep swallowing those pills.)

      Thanks for sharing about yourself in your comments — it’s really helpful to remember that novels are meant to help us read our own lives, and that really hit home for me.

  3. I LOVE your point about the pills and their connection to patriarchy. As I read your post, I kept thinking, “Do women need pills to be able to endure marriage? Is it that bad sometimes?” And given the statistics on anti-depressant use, I would say the answer is a scary “yes” that women tend to rely on pills to get through their day-to-day lives. And then you nailed it by pointing out the metaphor! And yes, such a strong connection in the end to The Awakening. What does it say that The Awakening and this novel, decades and experiences apart, still come to the same close?

    1. Kate Rae Davis says: Reply

      Oh goodness. I think in my head I was pretending that HTBAGW isn’t quite so current. But it is. And that it and The Awakening come so close … how heartbreaking. What small (though meaningful) steps we’ve traveled.

    2. Dorie says: Reply

      Always the best content from these prouigiods writers.

  4. Naomi says: Reply

    Great insights! And, I like your ending better than the one I assumed happened. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it – now she’s free to live her life! Committing suicide seemed like such a waste for her.
    I also love your question about whether we are happier not knowing, or better off knowing the truth. Good stuff to think about!

  5. […] How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman. The August pick for Literary Wives. Click through for full review and thoughts. […]

  6. I haven’t read this book, but literally, thank God it is not a metaphor for my marriage nor what I witnessed growing up. I married at 28, after being on my own after college for 7 years. During our marriage, my career grew, thanks to my husband’s encouragement. The only reason my career path altered was due to a neurological disorder and disability that forced me to stop working at the age of 43. My husband encourages my artistic ventures, I encourage him in his work. We are a partnership. I grew up in a home with a Mom that was a homemaker. But she was also a nurse. An accomplished floral designer, seamstress. She was side by side with my Dad restoring our antique cars, helping find parts at flea markets, helping with the bodywork. She had her own antique truck. So my view of marriage was it was to be a partnership. When I was dating, this is what I was seeking, a partner in life. I did not need/want to be rescued, And come November, Paul and I will celebrate our 30th anniversary. We have had a lot of hard times. Job loss, my illness. We are partners, lovers, friends. Mom and Dad…they were married 65 years when Mom passed away. Dad followed her to Heaven 3 years later. Their spirit will be with us when we celebrate this coming November.

  7. I had commented on this within a day or two, but see now that it didn’t post. (Had the same problem with Emily’s blog.) Wow. Just wow. My first thought was, “I’d love to see what she’d do with The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips!” I felt that book was NOTHING but allegory, kinda like Animal Farm. I get the connections you made. But honestly, I never felt the ending was anything but suicide, whether to simply escape this lifetime or the husband or the institution…it is definitely an interesting alternative. And, I am really really glad we are scheduled to read and review The Awakening this coming June! It is a classic I need to read. 🙂 I definitely got to a point of total disconnect in my first marriage, subjugating myself to the needs of my children. I’m not sure I could have survived those years had I not done that, though sometimes I wish I had at least tried to totally break free while my children were still young, while at others I believe it could have been worse…who knows? No “do-overs” in life, unfortunately! I am very fortunate to have found a partner with whom to share my life as a true partner in so many ways the second time around. Though I could have been totally happy to remain single, too… I welcome they day we don’t judge/classify by “gender” or “sex” but rather get to know each person as a unique individual, no hierarchy, no power strugle, no controller and controllee in a relationship.

    1. Hah! I had to rekey this and obviously, typed too fast…love those spelling errors! 😉

    2. Kate Rae Davis says: Reply

      Lynn – thanks for your comment! And especially for typing it out twice.

      I’m adding The Beautiful Bureaucrat to my (impossibly long) to-be-read list. It looks hauntingly insightful.

      You’re right that the escape tone is really heavy in those final scenes. It probably does shape the way we’re “meant” to read those last paragraphs. Perhaps I dismissed that a bit in my effort to make the story more hopeful. I really want to believe there are more options out of a bad marriage than suicide. Your experience (and mine) both evidence that there is new life to be had after bad relationships!

      As for your hope for nongendered, nonsexed relationships, all I can say is: Hear, hear!

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