Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill – A Literary Wives Reflection

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill - a Literary Wives reflection

What does it mean to be a wife? How does the role of wife impact a woman’s identity?

These are the core questions we address 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.

This month’s pick: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Check out other responses and reviews on the same novel from Literary Wives bloggers! You can find them all through the Literary Wives page.

The book jacket summary of Dept. of Speculation claims that it’s a wife (characters all remain nameless) trying to “retrace the steps that led them to” their marriage arriving a breaking point. Which is semi-true – it has the kind of helicoptering feel of memory, mostly floating well above the surface but occasionally dropping down to actual conversations and interactions. The memory of a phrase spoken, and the mind fills in the context.

I say it’s only semi-true because it’s not really about her memory of her marriage. I mean, it starts with a few pages on their dating life, and eventually returns to the wife’s thoughts on their marriage. But in between is half a book that are really reflections on motherhood more than wifehood. During the years she’s reflecting on her child, her husband is, at best, a minor character.

Which is perhaps part of the point. That mothering consumes time, energy, attention, focus. That fathers aren’t expected to invest in childrearing in the same way. That relationships between parents are put on the back burner for the more urgent needs of a child.

Through the focused-on-mothering pages, I felt a rage that the wife doesn’t seem to. When her husband complains about the garbage and she takes care of it — as though he’s incapable — and then he’s ungrateful. When the daughter asks for more attention and the wife confides to the reader that it’s still hard to shake off her ambition. Where is her husband in helping her with this? Why does she seem to be responsible for the maintenance of the home, the care of their child, and her career while he only has to manage his career?

It’s only when she finds out about the affair that she begins to actually reflect on their marriage. A marriage that, by this point, I can only imagine is a marriage in solely legal terms (rather than relational ones).

Shortly after she finds out she reflects on herself: “Was she a good wife? Well, no.” (108) The reader has no basis on which to agree or disagree; those years are so glossed over with the focus on the child. A dynamic which seems to be more co-created than the fault of the goodness (or lack thereof) of the wife.

A framing moment for me was when the wife wonders if she was at fault because she “let him get lonely.” In the context here, I read “lonely” as a polite code word for “horny.” But elsewhere in the novel, the same word is used in connection with his sense of gloom; perhaps “letting him get lonely” was her lack of curiosity and engagement of his experience. Though, again, a co-created dynamic — he seems to have been just as incurious about hers.

Another framing moment, from the husband’s side: he tells her to “stop apologizing.” And, God, yes. What other response could a spouse possibly have to a woman who apologizes when changing lanes? We think that accommodating people are easy to get along with, to live with, but they’re not — because they don’t show up with enough self for us to engage with.

And with that frame in mind — of the woman-without-self — the ending feels predestined and cursed. Of course she stays with him, with her silent resentment (“ask the fucking birds” for forgiveness that he won’t ask of her), a resentment which is of course already setting him up for his next affair. On a deep level, the wife has a very steady view of the good wife: The good wife is the silent wife. And it’s the destruction of their marriage.

Or perhaps the philosopher friend foreshadowed that she’ll develop enough of a self to be able to leave him in six months, after they move to the country — or at least I can hope for that.

But as for where the novel leaves us, I hate the wife for her complicity and for upheaving her entire life in artificial ways while doing nothing different in her actual relationship besides the occasional whispered harsh word. (Harsh words aren’t the same thing as actually engaging real conflict!)They still express emotions immaturely, though slightly more honestly — even at the end, I was agreeing with the wife’s sister’s assessment of their “kid-glove marriage”. His lack of remorse and apology is unpromising. Which is all a true accurate of life and feels true of many marriages — but I feel like the author was hoping to provoke a sense of hope in me at the end that I just can’t muster.


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.

6 Comment

  1. Kay says: Reply

    Hmm, your observations are much more particular than mine. The husband seemed selfish at times, but at other times their relationship seemed to be a good one. Certainly, the wife was unsure of herself. I have to admit that I read this one quite a while ago, but I didn’t have the same reaction to the wife’s “complicity” that you did.

  2. Naomi says: Reply

    This first time I read the book I was actually surprised when she discovered her husband had had an affair. And I think that’s because we don’t get a good sense of what their marriage is like during the first couple of years of the baby’s life. It would be interesting to hear his side of the story as well, wouldn’t it? (Not that I think he had a good excuse for what he did…)

    1. Kate Rae Davis says: Reply

      I’d love to see a counterpart novel where we hear his side! I feel like I was trying to fill in his experience of her by imagining how I would feel living with the narrator. But that probably says more about my character than his.

  3. Yes, it would. I didn’t get the impression that their marriage was in bad shape, either. But of course, the whole thing took the wife by surprise. I guess one problem of limiting the point of view the way she did was that because she was so involved in being a parent, she didn’t notice anything else.

    1. Kate Rae Davis says: Reply

      I had to flip through it to try to figure out why I thought it was a problematic relationship. A few moments I made comments in the margins: His peevishness to her vulnerably sharing her fear of his breaking up with her (p50); his dismissiveness at her unwritten second novel (p51) and vacation plans (p71); his resentment of her work and unwillingness to contribute to housework (p87-88); his entrapping happiness question (p96). I just didn’t see many warm/positive interactions between them.

      Although, in all this we’re getting her memories looking back from after the affair. Is she demonizing him? Or is this an accurate representation of the relationship? It’s impossible to know.

  4. I think it’s only natural that we try to figure out if we are ourselves at fault for something that doesn’t go right. It actually didn’t irk me when she, at times, blamed herself for her husband’s affair. I think that is normal during self-reflection, even if it might not be accurate. (It did irk me that she didn’t leave him!) But the more I am thinking about the characters’ actions and reactions, the more I notice the limited view we have of the marriage and the interactions of the spouses. It is actually very hard for me to judge either one, although I can in no way excuse the husband’s cheating.

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