Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 91: Sarah Orne Jewett, Tom’s Husband (#108)

Sarah Orne Jewett, "Tom’s Husband" (1882) from Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels & Stories:

If you thought the last Sarah Orne Jewett piece was an anomaly--you know, the one with the aged sea captain who spent half his days thinking he was his own sister and (cross-)dressing like her--here's your debunking. In "Tom's Husband," the gender issues are so up front and center that SHE TITLED THE PIECE "TOM'S HUSBAND"! Really, how much more gender-bending can you get in 1882?

But this is 1882 and while some famous women writers might have "Boston marriages," things don't go so well for Tom and Mary when they swap positions. See, although Tom likes taking care of the house and Mary has a head for business, they can't really keep it up with her running the mill and him running the house; and the last few pages returns the situation to a sort of status quo, which must've been very relaxing to the Atlantic readers who usually have status on their minds.

Jewett gets in a few gems of jabs in, as when Tom wonders if women feel circumscribed by the narrowness their home lives, just like he does. (His answer: women are made differently, so probably not.) And without treading over into fantasy, Jewett notes how the mill under Mary steadily prospers, getting better every year. So we might put this down as an argument for the social construction of gender, disguised as a sketch about a semi-happy family. That's clearly the main thrust of the piece.

But, as usual, there are little side thrusts that complicate (or reinforce in odd ways) the main thrust. For instance, we hear that Mary is good at business and Tom is sort of idle and home-minded--but then we also hear that Tom might be that way partly due to a childhood accident. Why do we need that reason for how people are? We don't get any such reason for Mary. When Tom is placed in the "wife" position (home-caretaker), he develops a rather un-wifely hobby of coin-collecting. Is that the retention of some money-minded male-marked and -dominated activity? And/or is it a reminder that Tom at his most wifely still retains a lot more freedom than any wife? And when we get the reimposition of the status quo, what we actually get is Tom and Mary leaving for a vacation, a sudden break with how things were. And what does it mean for a story to begin with the promise of a marriage and end with the abandonment of the home?

No comments:

Post a Comment