Posts tagged Marilyn Yalom
The Wife of Bath (Happily) and the Princesse de Cleves (Miserably), Ever After

"By verray force he rafte hire maydenheed”. . . . 

Ugh, of course he did. 

But get this! Citizens protest and much civil unrest ensues because: (1) obviously, we can assume the maiden was believed; and (2) in this particular tale, the people have power and even a knight from King Arthur's own table can — and will! — be tried. What's more, King Arthur actually sentences the “lusty bacheler” (rapist) to death (122)!

Which should be the end of the Wife of Bath’s tale — in Chaucer’s time, our own, or any time at all — but isn’t because King Arthur’s wife, the queen herself!, intervenes to say she’ll spare the rapist’s life, if, in one year’s time, he is able to report back what “thing it is that women most desyren” (122). 

A year later, though, it’s more bad news for the rapist. No one knows what women want in all the land! Until finally he meets a disgusting old woman — “A fouler wight ther may no man devyse” — who offers him a deal: the answer, in exchange for marriage (125). This is basically the worst thing ever for the poor, miserable rapist. He has no choice but to submit, and so she tells him the answer, and he tells the queen, and for this his life is spared:

Wommen desyren to have sovereyntee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love
And for to been in maistrie him above. (125)

To be clear: “hir love” is not her husband.

Which makes this one of the more interesting lines of the tale, of all the Tales in fact, because the Wife of Bath (and Chaucer, of course) takes for granted and deftly slips into her tale the equal right for women to have a legal spouse and a lover. (The fact that the queen accepts and supports this answer adds an extra layer to the Wife of Bath's tale, as she begins by saying, Back in King Arthur's day, etc., which assumes that we already know the queen is dead, having been sentenced to death for her affair with Lancelot.) The distinction between spouse and lover is clear in the Wife of Bath’s tale (as well as it is in history): marriage is one’s duty to family and society, as is sex and the production of children, but love and lovemaking have nothing to do with it, which is why they must be sought out elsewhere.

After their marriage, in fact, the old hag gives the rapist yet another choice — he may keep her as she is, “foul and old,” which guarantees that he’ll never become a “cokewold,” and she promises to “be to yow a trewe humble wyf / And nevere yow displease in al my lyf” . . . or he can have her “yong and fair” and run the risk of being cheated on either in his own home or “in som other place” (129-30).

Having learned what women want, the rapist defeatedly gives up, submits to her will, and says the decision is hers. For this act of submission, she rewards him and transforms into a young and beautiful maiden: “I wol be to yow bothe […] fair and good” and faithful as any wife the world has ever seen (130).

Well, isn’t that just wonderful? A perfect and happy ending for the rapist!  

(It bears mentioning that the Wife of Bath doesn’t end her tale just yet. With her final lines, she begs Jesus to punish by “pestilence” and early death any unworthy man who does not submit to his wife (130).)

In any case, the rapist ultimately gets what every man wants: a young, beautiful, and faithful wife. That this tale of one miserable man’s woe maintains that finding the rare trifecta of youth, beauty, and fidelity in a wife must be hard-earned, assumes that a young and beautiful wife cannot, or will not, ever, in any case, be faithful. For here is the exception. Here is the rarest of the rare. Here, in this "fayerye" tale, is that precious booty that even a knight of the round table didn't dare or hope to find after a long, hard, life-or-death yearlong quest (121).


For all the feminist and anti-feminist discussion “Alyson” the Wife of Bath’s tale may inspire, we must also consider it hand-in-hand, I think, with the Miller’s Tale — which presents us with a different “Alisoun," a young and beautiful, and (of course!) unfaithful, wife. The tale is funny, sure, and who doesn’t love a good fart joke, right? But while there’s much to be said about how its baseness problematically stereotypes millers, the tale — and the order in which we are forced to receive it — is a more interesting investigation.

If I were teaching The Canterbury Tales in, say, a Women of Western Lit seminar, I’d no doubt pay particular attention to how the first person to demand to be heard in the storytelling contest assumes that a story about a woman who makes a fool of her husband is so necessary, so entertaining and memorable, that he must be heard now.

The formal structure of the Tales has everything to do with order disordered. What begins in a logical fashion (he who has the most power has the right to speak first) quickly devolves as power struggles play out between the storytellers vying and vowing to one-up one another. (This ain't no democratic Decameron, folks. Whose formal structure, now that I think of it, is perhaps Canterbury's perfect opposite, in its desperate need to re-order disorder.) The Miller’s tale is uniquely positioned due to its insistence upon being heard now and, as a consequence, initiating the destruction of social order. And what is so important that it must be heard right now? The story of a cheating wife. Sigh. Oh, Alisoun! Why? Why must you be so "wilde and yong" (74)? Why!? Oh wait, that's right. It's not as if there’s any other kind of wife, right? 

At least, not until the other Alyson, the Wife of Bath — the first woman to have a chance to speak in the Tales — presents us with an alternative: a good woman who saves her man’s life, and — shocker! — is also miraculously that rarest of rarities that no man has ever seen before. 

Because she doesn’t actually exist.

She’s a magic fayerye or something? 

Sadly, even in this tale about equality, the best a good woman with magic powers in the land of fayerye can get . . . is a rapist who was once on death row.


In previous posts (about Job's wife and Sappho), I quoted from Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife. I’m scheduled to teach comp again this year, and I’m revamping my syllabus. For the first paper, I’m thinking about assigning the research topic: “traditional marriage.” I’ll probably give them a chapter from Yalom’s book, but I’m also considering Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History.

In Coontz’s first chapter, “The Radical Idea of Marrying for Love,” she notes:

(1) “In Europe, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, adultery became idealized as the highest form of love among the aristocracy”;

(2) “As late as the sixteenth century the French essayist Montaigne wrote that any man who was in love with his wife was a man so dull that no one else could love him”;

and (3) “Courtly love probably loomed larger in literature than in real life. But for centuries, noblemen and kings fell in love with courtesans rather than the wives they married for political reasons. Queens and noblewomen had to be more discreet than their husbands, but they too looked beyond marriage for love and intimacy” (16-17).

Which is to say: traditional marriage doesn't, as too many among us tend to believe, begin in the 1950s with "traditional" families that God-fearingly maintained good old-fashioned family values. To be clear, I may be snarky but I'm not against marriage, or tradition. As my soon-to-be posted thoughts on the three Madame Bovarys and the doctor's wife in Blindness will hopefully make even clearer, my own feelings about love and partnership have become even more complicated than they already were. So any chance to teach and continue to research the history of love, and romance, desire, partnership, relationships, etc., is a welcome opportunity to become, I hope, someone who daily learns, lives, and loves more fully, truly, deeply.

OK, you should stop reading here if you just rolled your eyes, because now I'm going to yammer on a bit about a princess . . . whose major drama is that she's in love.


The issue of whether or not love (and sex/fidelity) should have any connection at all to marriage lies right at the heart of the princess's drama in The Princesse de Cleves, which, although published in the 17th century, takes place in the 1500s at the royal court of Henry II.

Terence Cave writes in his introduction to the Oxford edition that the major theme is “secrecy, […] a truth never fully confessed, a name suppressed,” and sure enough the name the princess withholds from her husband is her lover’s (viii). M. de Cleves soon figures it out on his own, though, and it drives him crazy and leads to his premature death. The catch is — the princess only has feelings for M. de Nemours. She never acts on them the way everyone else at court acts on their own (men and women alike). The drama of the novel is that she confesses to her husband that she has such feelings. As Cave points out:

It was in fact the confession scene in The Princesse de Cleves which caused the greatest furore. This was because it provided a test case for plausibility in the expanded nouvelle historique or fictional memoir. Extraordinary and exotic things can happen in romances, but the claim to be in some sense historical entailed for the seventeenth-century reader a submission to common experience and common opinion. The confession, while undoubtedly intriguing, was judged by the majority of readers […] wholly implausible. Wives just don’t say such things to heir husbands. (xiv)

Even after her husband dies, when she is perfectly able to pursue a relationship with the other man (her uncle, in fact, goes out of his way to help make this match happen, as he likes them both and wants to see them happy), Mme de Cleves still rebuffs M. de Nemours’s advances. So difficult is her act of denial, she will spend a good portion of the year locked up in a convent, ever-after! She just can’t trust herself around the guy, and she really wants to obey her mother’s dying wish that she should never become a fallen woman, and she really wants to live up to her husband’s dying wish that she should never pursue a relationship with M. de Nemours.

Although, ultimately, Mme de Cleves is the (almost-) perfect wife — young, beautiful, and faithful — she suffers as a result of struggling so much with the feelings she harbors for M. de Nemours. The novel lets us into her deepest thoughts, and, as a result, she is a fully developed and complicated, psychologically complex/anguished character, despite the fact, or because of it, that she remains loyal and true to the end.


Switching gears for a moment. . . . 

Generically, The Princesse de Cleves is particularly important because it is held to be the first novel, “the first work of prose fiction written in Europe” (viii). At the time, as Cave tells us, novels didn’t exist — but romances did. What makes the work extraordinary is that it is decidedly not a romance, not a tale “of heroes and heroic lovers” (ix). As Cave observes: “if this new work must initially be defined by saying what it is not, rather than what it is, there can be no ready-made category waiting to receive it” (ix).

He points out that prose narratives existed at the time, but were “regarded as a ‘low’ genre, designed mainly for consumption by women readers” (x). Another form that already existed, and was undergoing a revival at the time, was the nouvelle, and while the “romance is written according to the rules of decorum and in a poetic manner” the nouvelle is devoted “to representing things as we see them happen in ordinary life rather than as we imagine them to be” (x). And yet another genre that already existed was the memoir, which was a response to readers’ tastes, at the time, for a quasi-historical narrative describing “the private rather than the public aspect of historical events”; as well, memoirs of the time recorded “the intimate personal passions and intrigues that are glossed over by the official record” (xi).

Thus, The Princesse de Cleves is a hybrid of the various forms of the time:

In its opening pages, The Princesse de Cleves seems to promise the spectacle of a magnificent court and the story of illustrious love affairs: the novel begins, then, as a memoir. It becomes a novel at the point where the invented figures of Mme de Chartres and her daughter appear on the scene, inaugurating a ‘private’ story that no history or memoir could have told. [… And while] it takes its central couple from a family so illustrious in the seventeenth century that the publisher (acting perhaps as a mask for the author herself) felt obliged to defend the work in a prefatory note [… the] amorous intrigue itself is fictional and the figure of the ‘unrequited lover’ is invented. (xii)



Here we have a not-romance, a not-memoir, a not-quite nouvelle. 

How novel, one might say, this hybrid of rejected forms. 

In The Novel: An Alternative History, Steven Moore traces a lineage of the novel that begins long before The Princesse de Cleves ever came along. I'm sure I'll return to his alternative history again and again in future posts, but for now I'll just say that he offers a lineage of the novel that cautions us against too-easy claims of this text or that text being the first novel. It does seem useful, though, to also include his own clarification — that he discusses "the novel as a family classification" whereas distinctions like those I've highlighted from Cave's introduction (romance, memoir, and nouvelle) are classifications more along the lines of genus and species (5). 


In both Chaucer's and Lafayette's days, from the 14th-17th centuries, a husband with a mistress is accepted, even expected. A wife with a lover, however, is expected but not accepted. As such, marriage is not represented in these historical texts as anything other than the business transactions they were during these historical times. The royal marriages in The Princesse de Cleves make this explicitly and especially clear. Mistresses appear with regularity, and their presence at court is taken for granted as a matter of course. Wives, on the other hand, absolutely must be secretive about their own lovers and lovers’ identities.

Most interestingly, M. de Cleves loves his wife dearly — loves her as he would any wife but also loves her as he would a mistress — and the problem is that while she loves him as she would any husband she does not have for him those special loving feelings that she has for M. de Nemours. If the novel is an anti-romance, then the princess is its anti-heroine, even though she is the good wife and never acts upon her feelings; she is an anti-heroine because hers is a tragic love story and unrequited. And her husband, M. de Cleves, is the anti-romance’s tragic anti-hero. Or perhaps not. Perhaps because he gets the girl (for the most part), and because she remains faithful to him, he emerges as the anti-romance’s sort-of hero? M. de Nemours, then, may be the anti-romance’s more likely anti-hero. He is good-looking and rich, is more than willing to DTR, desperately loves the princess, ditches all his previous lovers and remains bizarrely faithful to her, and yet, this perfect Prince Charming never gets the girl. She kind of even ruins his life, as he holds onto his desperate hopes for a really long time. 

So here we have a clear anti-hero and anti-heroine — and a sort of sadsack husband/everyman between them. Welcome to the novel and the birth of the fictional, depressing, unhappily ending, cold-splash-of-water-of-reality prose narrative. Hooray?

Anyway, the very notion of such a thing as the romantic ideal of a marriage founded upon love and fidelity appears even more presciently in the Wife of Bath’s tale, as the rapist obtains, in one body, a wife who also delivers the pleasures usually provided by a mistress. The reason the rapist wins this rare prize is because he has come to understand that women desire sovereignty over their husbands and their lovers. He accepts as her equal right his wife’s ability to take a lover, or lovers, whether he likes it or not. And he is rewarded with a wife who chooses not to take any other lovers for the rest of their days. The message is clear — give a woman power in the relationship, give her the freedom to act as she will, and do not own her, abuse her, mistrust her, and she will of her own accord be loyal and true.


In this way, the tale suggests, all the way back in the 14th century, the notion and possibility of a marriage founded upon love and fidelity, a romantic ideal that won’t actually begin to appear in our real-life history of love and marriage for many, many, many hundreds of years, not even in the 17th century’s The Princesse de Cleves. 

Because, you know, progress takes time.

Traditionalists die hard. 


A quick and final word, to close, about the Wife of Bath’s prologue, in which, despite the fact that she embodies the worst of what wives were/are thought to be, she also embodies the wife as a mental and physical equal to her husband when she gets even with a few of hers, making one think she’s cheated on him upon discovering he cheated on her, and by physically abusing another husband after he abuses her.

Which is to say: I'm not certain the Wife of Bath's definition of "sovereignty" over one's husband necessarily indicates any woman's elevated position in a two-person hierarchy; instead, I think it indicates, simply, actual equality.

The expectation of a husband being the lord of his house and sovereign in his marriage (for how many hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years?) has long been taken for granted.

As his equal, a wife may simply be regarded as the same — lady of her house and sovereign in her marriage. 

Or "relationship."

Or "friends-with-benefits thing."

Or whatever it is she decides she wants, or wants to call it, if she even wants or wants to call it anything at all. 

Because the decision to DTR — or not — is hers. 

Right, ladies? 


Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. V.A. Kolve. 2nd ed. New York: WW Norton & Co., 2005. Print. 

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. Print.  

Lafayette, Madame de. The Princesse de Cleves. Trans. Terence Cave. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. Print. 

Moore, Steven. The Novel: An Alternate History. New York: Continuum, 2010. Print. 

Sappho: "Who ever desires what is not gone?"

In Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet, Philip Freeman tells us that Sappho, like Job’s wife, enjoyed a certain amount of wealth. It’s known that she married well, and had leisure time to write poems, but we have no record of who exactly her husband was. Until any poems about him are discovered, if they ever are, Sappho is completely unlike the wives who have appeared previously on my historical exams list. Penelope spends most of The Odyssey waiting for her husband, and Job’s wife spends most of The Book of Job waiting on her husband and wishing he would die (for whose sake, his or hers, I’m not sure). Penelope and Job’s wife are both, otherwise, silent and unseen. Their stories — if you can even call them that — are tucked neatly into the narratives that feature and belong to their men. Heroic men. Loyal and God-fearing men.

For we all already know this, do we not? Men act and women react. Honestly, more than any other common problem that appears in a creative writing class (hell, it appears with even more frequency on the NYT bestseller list), men acting and women reacting is pretty much my main pet peeve. Man cheats on woman, woman eats prays and loves. You know? But how can I blame students when their canon begins with and is built upon men who act and women who react. Man sets sail for the Trojan war and doesn’t come home for 20 years. Woman waits. Man comes home and says he’s woman’s husband. Woman isn’t sure so tests him. Man passes test and makes love to wife after all these years. Woman has to listen to him tell her all about all the other women and goddesses he’s had sex with while he’s been gone. Best pillow talk ever? Hardly. Another man loses his wealth, his children, and breaks out in boils. Woman must beg to feed herself. Man recovers wealth, children, and health. Woman gives birth to twice as many children as they had before. These women’s stories exist, and their existence only matters, on the periphery of their husband’s far more interesting and far more subject-worthy lives written and recorded for posterity.

Sappho, a breath of fresh air in all this ancient misogyny, lives her own life, has her own thoughts and feelings that take center stage, always, and she even, unlike those mortals before her, has an intimate and personal relationship with the goddess Aphrodite. Furthermore, her very existence, and her subject matter, does away with the husband / wife and the male / female binaries that are simply taken for granted in The Odyssey and The Book of Job (and the NYT bestseller list)Sure, Athene switched genders several times in The Odyssey, but the rules of attraction are different for the gods and in any case she isn’t so much wooing or sexing anyone so much as she’s setting up her chess board and putting all the pieces and players in place so she can ultimately kill hundreds of would-be suitors, brutally and in gruesome detail. Leaving Athene to her bloodbath, I’ll return our attention to the main-character mortals we have seen thus far in the canon who are, without question, heterosexual and married. Frankly, I hope we never find any poems about Sappho’s husband. His absence in her body of work is wonderfully appealing, as his story doesn’t even exist on the periphery of his wife’s. It doesn’t exist at all. History has spoken. Give a woman a pen and paper and what will she do? Write her own story. And write her husband out of it.

I’m reminded suddenly of contemporary writer Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd. “My husband moved to another city,” the narrator writes. “Let’s say Philadelphia. He went out the front door with a single suitcase and a portfolio full of plans, and that was the last we heard of him” (81). A few pages later: “I printed out the last ten pages to read them aloud, cross out, rewrite. By accident, I left them on the kitchen table overnight. This morning I came down for breakfast and found my husband in the kitchen. [… He] asked: Why have you banished me from the novel? […] You wrote that I’d gone to Philadelphia. Why?” The narrator answers: “So something happens” (83). While I love the meta-moment highlighting the power that a female narrator wields as writer, here again, though, the narrator’s desire for “something” to happen seems contingent upon the husband-character acting and those around him reacting. It’s an old goddamn trope and it’s tired. It’s worn out. Can we get rid of it once and for all? Please?

Thank god for Sappho. That she is in the canon revives my soul. Would I start a course with her, though, and ignore texts written before hers? No. Because her presence, and her absence, is felt more keenly in the context of the epics before and after her time. She is, of course, our first lyric love poet in the age of epics. And then along came the Romantics, who revived the lyric and established it as our dominant mode of poetry for the past several hundred years. In classrooms, I’ve often said I don’t think any kind of new poetry can come along and wipe out the lyric the way the lyric wiped out the epic. We love music too much. We love songs too much. We love love songs especially. But what if I’m wrong? Imagine what new mode might come along and edge out the lyric poem. In classrooms, I’ve also said that the lyric essay seems to be making a run for it — today, audiences read more nonfiction than poetry, and as the lyric establishes itself in the essay genre more firmly and securely with every new day it does seem possible that the lyric essay could potentially edge out lyric poems. But the lyric essay is not a new mode of poetry. It’s an essay form. If we even care about such boundaries between poetry and essay anyway. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know I don’t. But that I’m trying, at the same time, to figure out how to navigate my way through a world that does.

In any case, Sappho’s lyric love poems have stood the test of time — in practice — far better than Homer’s epic. Even when we have only fragments. Even when we have only one complete poem of hers. When, in contrast, we have all of The Odyssey. What is it about Sappho’s work that so compels us, that so makes us yearn and ache for more? Why do so many women writing lyric poems and essays today make use of fragmentation and erasure, again and again? What is it about absence, about loss, that so ensnares our deepest sentiments?

In A History of the Wife, Yalom writes:

Sappho’s poetry would have been unknown to almost all Greek wives, since most could not read, and all but courtesans were excluded from the male banquets where her poetry might have been recited. Some women, like Sappho, undoubtedly found pleasure in the arms of other women, as they do today, but then it would have been a very dangerous liaison indeed. The Greek wife was not her own property. Given by her father to her husband ‘for the purpose of producing legitimate offspring,’ she spent the greater part of her adult life being pregnant, nursing and tending children, preparing food, and producing cloth. She did not record for posterity the pleasures she might have derived from a lover. (25)

Sappho really was a special snowflake. I’m fascinated with her, her work, her life, her stanza. The way it was described to me is as a steady heartbeat that staggers and gets back up again. So when I saw an ad for Philip Freeman’s Searching for Sappho, I requested an exam copy from the publisher (thank you, Norton!) and received it quickly. I tore through it in an afternoon. And I was disappointed. It wasn’t what I’d expected, and it didn’t tell me what I wanted to know. (In my head, I was hoping to come away from Freeman’s book the way I’d come away from Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws, knowing more about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and in a way that really supplemented my readings of their works. But Searching for Sappho is not a tell-all resource.) Slowly, it dawned on me: that’s exactly the point. The title says it all: we’re searching, and we may never find her. “The Greek word eros denotes ‘want,’ ‘lack,’ ‘desire for that which is missing’” writes Anne Carson in Eros the Bittersweet. “The lover wants what he does not have. It is by definition impossible for him to have what he wants if, as soon as it is had, it is no longer wanting. This is more than wordplay. There is a dilemma within eros that has been thought crucial by thinkers from Sappho to the present day” (10). Later, Carson asks, “Who ever desires what is not gone?" She answers: “No one” (11).

Instead of a literary celebrity tell-all, Freeman speculates and attempts to piece together a portrait of what Sappho’s life would have been like, given what we know about women of a certain class in a certain time and place in ancient history. I have come to really appreciate how absent Sappho herself is in Freeman’s book. It’s sad. It makes me sad. Such sadness reminds me of how sad it is that so little of her work remains. Which reminds me of how little any of our work will remain. And compels me to want to say to young poets everywhere — sing your gorgeous hearts out, and do it beautifully, because I honestly don’t know what else could possibly be the point of our time here on earth. And don’t leave out the bad shit, because bad shit combined with gorgeous heartsong is, truly, life immemorial.

To close, here's one of my favorite passages from Mary Ruefle's "Poetry and the Moon": 

In the West, lyric poetry begins with a woman on an island in the seventh or sixth century BC, and I say now: lyric poetry begins with a woman on an island on a moonlit night, when the moon is nearing full or just the other side of it, or on the dot. Epic poetry was well established. The great men had sung of battles and heroes, whose actions affected thousands, and blinding shields and the wine-dark sea and the rosy-fingered dawn. Yet it is wrong to think that the clamor had died down. Historians tell us the times were not idyllic; in the Aeolian Islands, especially at Lesbos, the civilization was old but rapidly changing, torn by economic unrest and clashes between emerging political ideas and traditional principles. In the middle of all this then, a woman on an island on a moonlit night picks up some kind of writing instrument, or she doesn't, she picks up a musical instrument, or she doesn't, she begins to simply speak or sing, and the words express her personal feelings of the moment. Let's call her Sappho. One can hardly say these little songs have survived — for we have only fragments — but even this seems fitting, for what is the moment but a fragment of greater time? (13)

The Book of Job: "Curse God and die!"

"Curse God and die!" says Job’s wife, who quickly emerged for me as the most interesting character in The Book of Job. On the Internet, most Christians seem to read her as the embodiment of what Job proves not to be — breakable and bitter, angry, wrong — but some choose to read her as the most misunderstood woman in the Bible. The former seem to be working off the text provided, whereas the latter go off page to imagine and empathize with what hardship the woman must have endured. Sure, she’s lost all the material wealth that Job lost — which was considerable — but she, unlike her husband, remains able-bodied. Consumed with physical pain, Job is her chronically ill patient and she his sole caretaker. Without sons, and having lost her daughters too, this woman who was used to a finer life would have been reduced to begging just to support herself and her husband. Able-bodied, she must tend to the realities of their daily needs. For these reasons, many sympathetic Christian readers allow her this moment of verbal diarrhea, for they acknowledge that from within her personal suffering the temptation to “curse God” would have been strong.

In A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom points out that the exchange between Job and his wife:

draws from an antique Mediterranean tradition in which wives were often seen as foolish: caught up in the grief of their losses, insolent to indifferent gods, they were presumably unable to see the ‘larger picture,’ be it political or metaphysical. Like the Greek queen Clytemnestra who never stopped blaming Agamemnon for the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, Job’s wife had no compunctions about cursing the God who had taken away her children. Whatever the prescriptions about wifely obedience, wives obviously opposed their husbands in the privacy of their homes, and even opposed the supreme patriarch — God himself. (10)

I’m reminded of another woman in ancient mythology, Niobe, who appears in Book 6 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and who loses her fourteen children because she dares to say that she, not Latona, should be celebrated — because although they are equals in all ways, she (Niobe) has more children. Latona sends her children, Apollo and Diana, to kill Niobe’s. First they shoot her seven sons, after which Niobe’s husband, Amphion, kills himself (unlike Job). And even as she cries, Niobe says she’s still got seven daughters. They’re all shot too. She grieves and cries until finally turning to stone. 

What’s interesting to note here is that, just like in The Odyssey (Greek), the gods in Ovid's Metamorphoses (Roman) are vengeful. Mortals and even other deities are punished for misdoings and/or for misspeaking. In The Book of Job, however, God and the Accuser are not punishing Job for losing faith, or for any reason at all. He is chosen, in fact, because he is so faithful. Job does and speaks no wrong. His suffering is without cause but for that Vegas-like bet between God and the Accuser. Many like to point out that God is unjust. Others offer that here we see a young God trying to figure out how to become the God that He’ll ultimately turn into, but after this, my very first read of The Book of Job, I kind of think God here is exercising His own faith in Job, His model creation. That the Accuser is the real bully and God simply a bystander does raise the excellent question of whether we should always speak up and act when anyone we know mistreats another. I think we would all agree that, yes, we should. In so doing, then, do we become somehow more just than God himself?

Even as Job’s friends victim-blame him (in, btw, a stunning onslaught of hybrid poems / speeches / chapters within a prose frame that begins like a fairy tale), he struggles to understand why God would punish him so. But he is not being punished. This bad shit is just happening to him because sometimes bad shit happens. Not everything has an explanation. (Even if in this case there is one, even if in this case it’s not much different from the dead religions’ gods and goddesses enacting their power and will over the lives of mortals, raising the question of whether or not God is as much a literary creation as Zeus? As Jupiter?) Job’s friends, who insist his suffering is punishment — as would the mortals in any ancient myth — are verbalizing what seems to be a logical fallacy. They are trying to explain the bad shit and make it Job’s fault. If Job doesn’t deserve this bad shit, then who’s to say bad shit can’t happen to anyone, at any time, for no reason at all?

Job’s friends, like so many among us, are desperate to believe good behavior is rewarded and bad is punished. For this reason, they will insist upon Job’s guilt. Job’s wife, however, doesn’t seem to care why this has happened to them — and even though she says to curse God there’s no evidence that she’s saying this in relation to God’s actions against them. Cursing God, at the time, was thought to result in one’s immediate death. Cursing God is not much different than her saying, “Jump off a cliff and die!” Or “Stab yourself and die!” All of which is really to say: Put an end to your suffering and die! Death is better than this. Presumably, hell is better than this. For if Job curses God before he dies, it stands to reason he won’t end up in Heaven. In any case, like the mythological gods, Job’s God can and does put an end to his suffering and, just like the ancient deities, even rewards Job with 140 years and twice as much property and family as he had before. His wife, who also benefits, nonetheless must bear twice as many children as she had before. Is this her reward? Or her punishment?

Or nothing at all.


To conclude, I guess for now I'm just thinking about the following: 

(1) How The Book of Job occupies a vague space between Homer's The Odyssey and Ovid's Metamorphoses, texts in which gods and goddesses inflict pain and misery on mortals who cross them. The difference is that in these ancient mythological texts, the actions of the deities are clearly either punishments or rewards for bad mortal behavior and disrespect. The author of The Book of Job, however, is really wrestling with the question of how humans are to act in a world made by a God who stands by and watches them suffer for no reason, even at the Accuser's (devil's) bidding.

(2) The edition I have suggests that the prose frame and the interior poetic narratives were written by different authors. If this is so, I'm interested in the idea of reading them separately. The prose frame, divorced from the poems, is pretty much a fairy tale. It begins like a fairy tale "in a land" far away, provides a succession of challenges that the protagonist must overcome, and ends like a fairy tale, happily ever after. My edition suggests the poetry within is an ironic commentary on the prose story. I haven't read too much about this yet, because I'm not sure how much more time or energy I have to unpack Job, but I do know that in my ongoing efforts to locate the "liminal" and analyze how these spaces are narrated, it seems likely that I'll have to return to the generic form(s) of the book overall.

(3) Perhaps my biggest takeaway for now is simply this: it is good to know that such an early canonical text breaks frames and forms and that, like The Odyssey before and Metamorphoses, Arabian Nights, The Decameron, Inferno, The Canterbury Tales, and so many after, The Book of Job is a story within a story that houses many stories. Again and again, my posts keep leading to the role and value of storytelling in ancient times. The ongoing question and investigation, of course, concerns how to tell stories today. Lance's question dies hard, because really, how, if at all, can we write the contemporary?