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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

The Moslem Wife

A new story this week, dear friends, The Moslem Wife by Mavis Gallant, first published in The New Yorker in 1976. The story is included in the New York Review of Books edition entitled Paris Stories. It’s my first foray into examining shorter fiction—Wife is thirty-eight pages, so one of the things I want to look at is how the shorter form interacts with the story—which would be part of the story’s style—if you’ve been paying attention.

(Of course I’m paying attention, Mr. Big Shot. What choice do I have?)

Despite its brevity, the main part of Wife covers a span of some thirteen years, from 1932 when the two main characters marry, to 1945, when they come together after a long separation coinciding with WWII, although I think it’s fair to say the ending is ambiguous and open as to what happens next.

The title—which is perhaps insensitive by today’s standards—refers to what the protagonist, Netta, overhears herself called by a guest at the hotel she runs in the south of France. Its meaning is ambiguous as well, suggesting she is dutiful and subservient to her husband, Jack, and that he is unfaithful to her—a condition she gradually accepts. But it’s ambiguous because, like much of the text, this comment is someone else’s opinion and maybe unreliable. Netta must gradually make decisions about what it true for her.

The story focuses on her transformation from being the “Moslem Wife,” to not being the “Moslem Wife,” as the narrator interprets it, and then shows how she was affected by WWII, and her reaction to being re-united with her husband.

It’s often interesting to consider the significance of character’s names. Netta may simply indicate a shortening of Antoinetta, yet it also makes the opera fan think of the hapless victim Netta in Pagliacci. (Dena thought of that). Coincidence? I don’t know.

In keeping with things so far, let’s identify the trio of beings who tell this story. There is the real author, Mavis Gallant, a Canadian woman who moved to Europe and lived most of her life in Paris. There is the narrator of Wife, a fascinating creature about whom we shall have much to say. And there is the style of the (short) novel (or long short story).

There won’t be much discussion of Mavis Gallant, the flesh and blood author. Does this put me in the camp of those who are only interested in the text itself? The text itself, they say, could be read anytime, anywhere, and the meanings would be generated not by when it was written, by whom, and how, but by itself.


I do think the context matters. An interesting exercise is to think of the difference it would make if you learned a different author had written a story rather than the one you thought had. (Sorry about that sentence). Maybe an author with a different ethnicity and/or gender. Let’s say you think you’re reading a story by Dostoevsky and you find out it was actually written by Agatha Christie. The meanings would change—the reading would change.

But as far as I can tell, such is not the case with Wife. The style is powerfully Mavis Gallant, and we will need to examine just what this style is in blogs to come.

So I do think context matters, but I feel like it’s not terribly interesting. I think what’s really interesting is how each reading is a unique combination of a text and a reader.

The narrator of Wife is very assured. There is no suggestion of it being unreliable or ever unsure of its perspective on things. From the beginning, the narrator tends to make sarcastic, sometimes withering judgements of the characters who comprise Netta’s world, her father, many of the other hotel guests, her mother-in-law. The narrator establishes separation between Netta and the others—including Jack, as the story grows. The others’ opinions are put into doubt. Netta, who is rather sweet and forgiving in the beginning, is set against fools and cheats like a pearl set on a bed of stone.

(A what? The Simile Sheriff objects).

As far as the story’s style, let’s say at this point that it is third person, and strictly past tense or preterite. Thus it “provides a grammatical means of indicating that the event being referred to took place in the past.” This is significant although easily taken for granted. The story is told by a narrator who knows the end at the beginning. It’s interesting to note that Ms. Gallant said she imagined the last scene of Wife first and then went back to write what led up to it. A good way to write stories.

There is significant historical context; the story is set around WWII. In fact, the war is almost another character in Wife. It upends Netta’s life; out of its death and destruction comes enormous change.


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