What is the style of The Moslem Wife? By way of review, fictional style can be thought of as the implied author, an entity who mediates between the text and the real flesh and blood author, in this case, Mavis Gallant. Each particular story has its own style, expressed in terms of narrative structure, use of language, use of time, etc. It is the way the story is told.
As readers of the all important last blog entry know (we happy few!), my theory about Wife is that it’s told by a Narrator who is the protagonist, but looking back from the vantage point of many years after the events described. From that place, the Narrator understands more of her earlier motivations and actions, and is generally nurturant and forgiving to her younger self.
This short novel is written in two tenses—generally the past tense, to indicate things that have been completed in the past, and what I like to call an imperfect past tense, which indicates actions that, while complete in the past, have a repeated quality that are not fixed to a discrete moment.
Thus, we find an entry like this: “One day, she overheard an English doctor, whose wife played bridge every afternoon at the hotel…” This is a specific, completed event in the past. And then: “If, by chance, Jack found himself drawn to another woman, if the tide of attraction suddenly ran the other way, then he would discover in himself a great need to talk to his wife.” Here, indicated by the construction “would discover,” the event is not fixed to one discrete moment but occurs over a series of them.
The story is told in close third person that focuses on the protagonist, Netta. It is her inner experience that is shown and commented on by the Narrator, who sometimes comments on the thoughts and motivations of other characters but never shows their consciousness.
The story is highly episodic. As I previously mentioned, it encapsulates a long period of time, actually twenty-five years, into thirty-eight pages of prose. It does this by picking out key scenes from Netta’s life that show her character and by collapsing large areas of moment-to-moment time by the use of the imperfect past tense. If we consider our concept of “what do you do when I can’t see you?” meaning the way the text omits mundane time, there’s a lot missing. We are not shown Netta doing anything that does not relate to the story.
Thus, things begin with a kind of prologue that shows Netta with her father, who is signing a ninety-nine year lease on the hotel. It is her destiny to run the hotel. Then, the story describes the hotel and a young Netta’s life in it, and her attraction to her younger cousin, Jack. It accelerates into their romance and marriage, showing a Netta increasingly making excuses for her husband’s behavior. We get the story of Iris Cordier and her father, and one involving Jack’s mother, Vera, who moves into the hotel, faking illness to get her way. These are discrete events which further Netta’s story, both showing other people trying to manipulate and use Netta for their own ends.
Then the story shows Netta agreeing that Jack should leave on a sort of holiday, a separation framed as being for his sake, not hers. WWII prevents them from reuniting.
Up to this point—roughly half of the whole—the text is unbroken by chapters or paragraph breaks. But now, we get a series of paragraph breaks, occurring every two or three pages of text till the end. Curious, no? A further change in the style is that, in this second half, the imperfect past tense is largely dropped in favor of past tense scenes that tell the tale of Netta’s experiences during the war and the eventual return of her husband. Netta writes a letter to Jack that accounts for some of what has happened but tears it up. So, a period of some twenty years is shown in the first twenty-two pages, and then the last sixteen pages present events over a five-year span. As a result, the second half has a different feel, choppier, more harsh—which is quite in keeping with the content. In the first half, there is distance from the reader to the characters, in the second, Netta is brought painfully close. Brava, Ms. Gallant.
Metaphor is also used to collapse and compress time. And to link sections of the story together. The bedroom in the hotel that Netta picks for she and Jack to share “was deeply mirrored, when the shutters were closed on hot afternoons a play of light became as green as a forest on the walls, and as blue as seawater in the glass. A quality of suspension, of disbelief in gravity, now belonged to Netta. She became…as watchful and reflective as her bedroom mirrors.” Later in a key passage, “The looking glasses still held their blue-and-silver water shadows, but they lost the habit of giving back the moods and gestures of a Moslem Wife.” The mirrored bedroom with its closed shutters witnesses Jack’s lovemaking with Netta, later her lovemaking with a young American (busy, busy), and finally with an Italian officer during the war—although this last may have been coerced.
In a similar fashion, three little girls stay at the hotel early on; they are the daughters of an Indian Maharajah. Jack teaches them to play tennis. Later, after the war, one of the daughters——now an adult—returns to find Netta. A nice way to express a number of things, including the passage of time.
The Moslem Wife is a short story in terms of length, and this may be part of the reason for the compression of time—there’s simply not enough space. Perhaps a hallmark of the short story from is the need to leave out scenes and characters that don’t further the story, as opposed to a novel which may include sub-plots and considerable digressive detail. It would be interesting to know if Ms. Gallant considered a longer form for this story. I for one would have been happy as a clam to read a lot more about Netta and Jack, Dr. Blackley, and wacky Aunt Vera. But it could be that part of the beauty of the book is in its succinctness. An art of omission, if you will. (I will).
Next week, I want to look closely at the ending and offer some thoughts on—what’s the point?
Happy New Year to all!