What does being a wife mean? How does the role of wife impact a woman’s identity?
These are the core questions we address in a bi-monthly 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: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. Check out other thoughts and reviews on the same novel from Literary Wives bloggers! You can find them all through the Literary Wives page.
Marketed as a real-life romance, the novel only fits that description for the first few chapters. Zelda falls in love, rebels against parents and cultural norms, and forges a path to New York City and a financially risky marriage to a man who thinks he can write for a living.
At that point, the “feminist in marriage” framework is really established and the plot speeds up. In pace, go from seeing her fingers fold the gauze for badge-making to barely being able to keep track of how many days (weeks?) Zelda and Scott have been in their honeymoon suite. Perhaps the change in pace reflects the amount of drinking and mental stability — we can’t keep up with their activities because Zelda can hardly follow the pace of their life herself. The subsequent years seem to whiz by until the final moments of the novel.
The thread of Zelda’s agency as a married woman is strong, and more relevant than I expected. Perhaps, more relevant than I wanted in a life that took place a century ago.
At first, marriage is a way out for Zelda, the possibility of freedom from an otherwise predictable and subdued life in Montgomery. The passion she and Scott share — for life and for each other — seems to be just what she needed. He seems to not only accept but adore her tomboyish ways, provocative jokes, and risqué fashion. He’s the image of a modern man, and Zelda’s ticket into a life that will afford her more active expressions of her identity than she could experience in her hometown, where her mother and sister fuss over the length of her hem.
And then, marriage becomes a prison, the proverbial “gilded cage.”
She becomes caught in the bind of her husband’s affections (and, to an extent, her dependence on him for finances and to maintain relationship with their daughter). On the one hand, if she pursues arts that fulfill her and give her a sense of purpose in the world — she writes, paints, and dances — Scott begrudges her work. On the other, if she does nothing, he criticizes her for not having the spirit or determination of other women.
There’s no way to win. Scott says to her ,”You don’t understand, Zelda, and you never will because your life is nothing but a series of low-risk amusements. Shopping and hair appointments and painting lessons and parties. I seek information about my very existence, my fate, not out of some idle curiosity but because our future depends on this book’s performance.” And Zelda, pitying him and being the more emotionally mature of the two, agrees and apologies, while quietly resenting this view of her life.
SPOILER HERE: There’s a really poignant dynamic that highlights the bind that Scott has Zelda in. He has an affair with a young actress, because he admires her drive in her career. But when Zelda pursues a dancing career, he claims she misunderstood his comment, and then names different reasons for why he was drawn to the actress. It’s infuriating.
Zelda never internally frees herself from the constrictions of the role of wife. She keeps quiet when she knows it’s wiser — whether from maturity or cowardice, it’s hard to say. She takes a back seat to her husband’s career, follows his desires across continents. She only manages to hold on to her own sense of self through stolen moments of art that are written off as frivolity (as her painting is), distraction (dance), or passive income (writing, under Scott’s name).
In some ways, we’ve come so far in the last century. There was never a question of whether my husband would “allow” me to work. But the role of wife in contrast with the role of existence-seeking, fate-fulfilling art and agency — that feels just as relevant now. I know I can’t do my work while at home; it’s too easy to stop work for the things my role dictates I “should” be doing: laundry, picking up, cooking. I still feel the necessity of carving out space within the role of wife to make room for my desires and my self.
How far do you think the state of wifehood has come in the last century?
Don’t forget to check out other thoughts and reviews on the same novel from Literary Wives bloggers! You can find them all through the Literary Wives page.