Going for Broke: Understanding How Different Literary Periods Depict Wives and How they Fail or Succeed in Achieving Social or Economical Advancement


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Jared Griffin

English 326

Professor Luck

June 11, 2009

Going for Broke: Understanding How Different Literary Periods Depict Wives and How they Fail or Succeed in Achieving Social or Economical Advancement

The American fictional representation of the roles men and women play in marriage varies over time. The “The Other Two,” “The Gilded Six-Bits,” and “Fantaisie Printaniere,” are particularly interesting stories to cluster together and analyze in regards to how they represent marital roles because they are from three different literary time periods dealing with husbands, wives, and marriage. In understanding the time periods these stories are written in, the reader comes to realize that these stories are clear representations of the mentality of the big thinkers of the time period in which they are written. Although it may be interesting to analyze the role of husbands in these stories, I am more interested in the depiction of wives. More specifically, even though the stories of “The Other Two,” “The Gilded Six-Bits,” and “Fantaisie Printaniere” are all written during three different literary periods and are about marriage, the Realist story of “The Other Two,” and the Harlem Renaissance/Modernist story of “The Gilded Six-Bits” portray wives as smart individuals who use sex/romance to improve their marriages, whereas wives in the Naturalist story of “Fantaisie Printaniere” are portrayed as dumb individuals who are willing to maintain the status quo of marriage even in an abusive relationship, and this suggests that Naturalists render wives in negative ways.

Since Realism emerges during the time of the publication of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer’s combined concepts of biological and social evolution, we see instances of these phenomenons through the wife in “The Other Two” and how she socially evolves herself through marrying three different successionally wealthier men as time goes on. Alice, the character in question, first marries Mr. Haskett who “owns a share in a profitable business in Utica” (10), creates a child with him, and promply divorces him due to “the natural result of a runaway match at seventeen” (1). This seems a reasonable response from Alice about why she divorces her first husband. From the lips of Alice, the reader further starts to believe she is rightious in divorcing her first husband when the narrator states, “[Alice speaks] vaguely of her first marriage as unhappy, [hints], with becoming reticence, that Haskett [has] wrought havoc among her young illusions” (8-9). However, the reader promply begins to realize that Alice may be hiding things when the narrator states, “It was a pity for Waythorn’s peace of mind that Haskett’s very inoffensiveness shed a new light on the nature of those illusions. A man would rather think that his wife has been brutalized by her first husband than that the process has been reversed” (9). Furthermore, the reader begins to see something astonishing when the narrator states, “It was [Alice] who [has] obtained the divorce, and the court [has] given her the child… the mere fact that Haskett [retains] a right over his daughter [implies] an unsuspected compromise” (10). The reader cannot help but ponder, “If Alice’s first husband is so bad, why does she allow him to visit the daughter?” The answer is simple, she uses him as a backup plan to take care of her child if there is ever a need. She keeps him at arms length but close enough for him to have a strong enough emotional connection with his daughter that if ever she feels too burdened by the child, she can hand her off to her first husband.

When Alice marries her second husband, the narrator gives the reader a reason why she remarries when it states that, “Alice Haskett’s remarriage with Gus Varick [is] a passport to the set whose recognition she covet[s], and for a few years the Varick’s [are] the most popular couple in town” (1). She craves to have a higher social status and thus marries a man that will provide that very thing. However, as time goes on, the reader discovers that “it [is] rumored that a lack of funds [is] one of the determining causes of the Varick Separation” (7). As soon as her second husband does not provide the amount of money she requires, she dumps him and moves on to a wealthier man.

The third, questionably final, and wealthiest man Alice marries is Mr. Waythorn. The reader understands that he is the wealthiest man she marries when it is discovered that he has footmen, servants, and cooks in his house working for him. Therefore, taking into account all three men Alice marries, she ends up with a well rounded social and economic support network that provides for her high needs at all times. More and more instances portray Alice Haskett/Varick/Waythorn as a succesful golddigger and the men she marries are only pawns in her game of socially evolving herself through the manipulation of men.

The second story worth looking at to analyze the portrayal of wives in literature is “The Gilded Six-Bits.” Since the Harlem Renaissance/Modernist period is wrought with studies of domestic life in rural African American culture, the reader of this story discovers some of the only ways women have of achieving economic success. In this story, we see the wife using sex more explicitly to benefit herself and her marriage. Joe, the husband in the story, throws money at his wife Missy May and she responds by saying, “Nobody gointer be chuckin’ money at me and Ah not do ‘em nothin’.” This seems symbolic to the action of onlookers throwing money at a stripper. Further on in the story, Missy May begins groping inside Joe’s pockets looking for candy kisses. The narrator then tells us that “Missy May gouged way down and gave an upward jerk and triumphed… Joe smiled indulgently and let his wife go through all of his pockets and take out the things that he had hidden there for her to find” (1520). Between this husband and wife, it seems evident that she only receives money through performing sexual actions for her husband. By the middle of the story, the reader clearly sees that Missie May loves her husband when she compliments him by saying

Ford and Rockefeller and dis Slemmons and all de rest kin be as many-gutted as dey please, Ah’m satisfied wid you jes’ lak you is, baby. God took pattern after a pine tree and built you noble. Youse a pritty man, and if Ah knowed any way to make you mo’ pritty still Ah’d take and do it. (1521)

Since Missie May does love her husband but is unable to earn money, she does find a way to make her husband prettier by having sex with Otis D. Slemmons who is rich and willing to give a gold piece to her if she performs sex with him. After the husband catches Slemmons and Missie May in bed together, she states “Oh Joe, honey, he said he wuz gointer give me dat gold money and he jes’ kept on after me” (1524). Even though she seems remorseful, Missie May clearly calculates her actions and purposfully has sex with Slemmons for money. Although Missie May’s actions are questionable and not noble, it is clear that the control the husband has over the money in the relationship hinders her ability to earn money and therefore seeks other outlets to receive what she wants.

After looking at two entirely different stories who similarly depict wives who use their womanhood to achieve what they want, one may be surprised how differently the Naturalist story of “Fantaisie Printaniere” portrays the mentality of wives. The most ironic aspect of this story begins with the title. Since Fantaisie Printaniere means Springtime fantasy, the reader initially expects this story to involve love, romance, princes and princesses, etc. However, the reader quickly learns that this story is the complete opposite that involves abuse, broken relationships, and dimented psychology. Traditionally, stories with titles similar to this depict women and wives in positive and uplifting ways. Therefore, at the beginning of the story, the reader senses that the author/Naturalist time period may not view wifehood nicely.

What further catapults this story toward the reading that the author/Naturalist time period thinks of women poorly, is the relationship between the two abused women in the story. The narrator leads the reader along in the story and states, “While common grievance [has] not made friends of the two men, mutual maltreatment [has] drawn their wives together, until no two women on the ‘block’ [are] more intimate than Trina Mcteague and Ryer’s wife” (2). The reader comes across this sentence and feels that these women might help each other out of their abusive situations. However, shock ensues when the reader discovers that, “During [their] visits they [avoid] speaking of their husbands, because, although the whole ‘block’ [knows] of the occasional strained relations of their families, the two women [feign] to keep the secret from each other” (2). This is ridiculous that these women do not come to each other for support. It is safe to assume that the author paints them as complete idiots.

If this is not bad enough, these two abused female characters further thow the reader into confusion when they do start talking to each other about their problems, but instead of offering help and a solution, they both defend their husbands and fight with each other about which husband hurts them the worst. After they no longer keep their private lives a secret, “Missis Ryer [breaks] out: ‘It’s best not to fight him, or try to git away – hump your back and it’s soonest over” (3). Instead of finding a way out of this situation, they only offer how to endure it more successfully. Directly after their short conversation about better ways to endure abuse, “The interminable discussion [begins]. ‘Look at that, just look at that, will you?’ ‘Ah, that ain’t nothun. How about that? There’s a lick for you.’ ‘Why, Mac’s the strongest man you ever saw’… ‘But it’s a club that does the most damage.’” This disturbing discussion shows the dimented psychology of these two abused women. This story is pushed over the edge of sanity into insanity when by the end of the story, the women start physically fighting with each other. Through their arguments and physically fighting with each other, these two women display attributes far different from the socially and economically advancive characters of Alice Haskett/Varick/Waythorn and Missie May in the previous two stories analyzed.

By contrasting these three stories and how they portray wives, it gives the reader a clear sense of what exactly the literary time period they are written in and how they view this role. While at first it seems that the wives in “The Other Two,” and “The Gilded Six-Bits” have poor character because they are manipulative, understanding why they do what they do, gives the reader understanding that they are only attempting to improve themselves socially and economically in the only ways alloted to them due to social constraints. These women are intelligent and utilize the tools given to them. The wives in “Fantaisie Printaniere” on the other hand, are mentally deficient individuals that are put in the story with calculation from the author through the literal lense of Naturalism. They do not take advantage of the help they can give each other and frankly, are depicted as dumb. These three stories highlight femaninity. The first two succeed, and the third falls short in depicting women as bright and thoughful individuals.

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