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.