This Is the End, My Only Friend
The ending of The Moslem Wife tells us what the story is about—the point—if you will. We talked last week about how the style of the story shifts, with the past imperfect sections diminishing, the appearance of paragraph breaks. There is also a greater use of Netta’s consciousness, more in her own language and voice than that of the Narrator’s.
Here’s a nice example: “Not a hope, she was trying to tell him…If I say it, I am free…If I relied on my memory for guidance, I would never have crept out of the wine cellar. Memory is what ought to prevent you from buying a dog after the first dog dies, but it never does. It should at least keep you from saying yes twice to the same person.”
In brief, in this ending of the story, we have Netta reporting to various people about what she’s been up to during the war—in a letter to Jack, in conversations with one of the Indian sisters and with Dr. Blackley. We learn that Netta has survived at the hotel, while beset by Italian and German soldiers, by her looney mother-in-law. She has survived in part by having a sexual liaison with an Italian officer, who provided her with food. It was a bad time, the hotel was shelled, she experienced death and destruction. She did what she had to in order to survive.
Finally, Jack returns, somewhat tardily. I’ve always found the last several pages ambiguous, open to the reader’s imagination as to what occurs between Netta and Jack. But after several more times of close reading, I’m going to call it. I think what Ms. Gallant wants to show in The Moslem Wife is that, for all her resolve to reject Jack, all her anger, Netta accepts him back to her bed, to her life. She is a survivor but not a hero.
In our time of long overdue, greater emancipation of women and gender rights equality, this ending may disappoint some readers (me, a little). We want Netta to be more resolute, more independent. We struggle to imagine her life with a man who abandons her and expects to be taken back when he’s good and ready, a man who is rather vacuous and insensitive. A more satisfying ending might be one in which Netta tells Jack to, well, hit the road, Jack. But, despite great misgivings, she doesn’t.
“He pulled her into an archway where no one could see. What could I do, she asked her ghosts, but let my arm be held, my steps be guided?
“Later, Jack said that the walk with Netta back across the Place Massena was the happiest event of his life. Having no reliable counter-event to put in its place, she let the memory stand.”
That last line is very interesting, so let’s try to unpack it. It’s kind of indirect free speech, in that it could be Netta’s voice, it could be the Narrator’s. The implication is that she wouldn’t let the memory stand if she had a reliable counter-event to put in its place. If her memories of Jack’s misbehavior were more reliable, she wouldn’t keep the memory of him saying the walk with her was the happiest event of his life. She wouldn’t believe him, but memory is unreliable; it’s the thing that keeps her saying yes twice to the same person, when she should know better.
Netta decides to accept Jack back. Despite giving every indication of being a competent adult, she is dependent on him. She believes she must have a man in her life, that she cannot survive without one. The point is that she is still the Moslem wife. We might not agree with her choice, but that is the story. We want Netta to survive, to find more happiness, but we cannot choose for her. The Narrator looks back with anger at those who imposed on Netta. But the Narrator’s voice is eventually crowded out, and Netta makes her choice. We, the readers, are left with a troubling and powerful emotional experience. Tragedy lurks here, my friends.
“Oh, thought Netta, I am the only one who knows all this. No one will ever realize how much I know of the truth…and she let the first tears of her after-war run down her wrists.”
Next week a new story, Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Till then.