Posts tagged The Doctor's Wife
Virtue, and the Doctor's Wife, Revisited

Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romantic, Gothic, Victorian, and Decadent readings behind me, I'm just now diving into the Modernists. Over the next few days, I'll be thinking about Death In Venice, Swann's Way, Ulysses, Orlando, As I Lay Dying, Nightwood, and Ficciones; but because these texts mark such a huge shift from the thousands of pages of (French/Russian) realism and (Gothic/Decadent) psychological realism I've been lost in recently, I want to sort of gather my thoughts here with a post on where I've been and where I think I might be going.

(Also, having copied and pasted this entire blog into a Word doc earlier today, for fear of losing my only record of exam "notes," I horrifiedly share that I've written about 38,000 words, close to 200 double-spaced pages. Yikes, right? I know. Anyway. . . )

One of the most obvious lines of inquiry to develop over the course of my historical reading, from The Odyssey to Anna Karenina, has dealt with representations in literature of wives, mistresses, and whores. Conveniently, these correlate respectively to liminal, marginal, and inferior subject positions of female characters; and common to all three is the significance of their so-called "virtue." Thanks to Mary Wollstonecraft, who often noted that "virtue" comes from the Latin word for "strength," I offer that wives, mistresses, and whores are equally virtuous — equally strong — women: 

Penelope (un)weaves. 

Job's wife stays. 

Sappho rewrites (Homer). 

Nelly Dean orates. 

The Wife of Bath divorces but the Princess of Cleves does not. 

Griselda endures.

Pamela resists but Shamela cons the system. 

Minerva represents us all, especially Maria, Jemima, all three Madame Bovarys, and the Minyades.

Anne Carson eulogizes and Gertrude Stein makes objects subjects.

Tristram's mother labors, Grete joins the labor force.

Emma believes, and Anna leaves.

Emily Brontë punches. 

And the doctor's wife takes charge. In my earlier post, I worried that I'd fooled myself, that she wasn't the strong female figure I'd always thought her to be. I wondered if more than anything else she had resigned herself to 24/7 mothering her husband and a band of strangers. While I am not abandoning those concerns, I acknowledge here that she is an incredible woman. Recognizing that I read Blindness way out of order, and that there are still several decades of history and writers and female characters and speakers ahead of me before she actually appears, I consider her now a tower of a character, a Minerva endowed with the wisdom and strength of all the women in literature who precede her. I've always loved her. I love her still. And not least of all because, in what I am sure is one of the most graphic and disturbing scenes in any of my exam texts, she takes sewing shears and stabs a serial rapist in the throat, while he is raping another woman, after he and his crew have systematically raped every other woman, healthy or infirm — every young woman, every single woman, every sister, every mother, every wife, every widow — in the building. 

A few days ago, I said, we can't look away from the characters we don't like or whom we fear, for instance, rapists and murderers, because they are in the world and we shouldn't ignore (or encourage) evil by turning a blind eye. We shouldn't gawk, curiously, either (like God in the Book of Job). If we need a model for how to proceed, we might look no further than Saramago's Blindness, in which the doctor's wife becomes more than a rape victim and more than a witness; the doctor's wife becomes jury, judge, and executioner. Yes, she becomes a murderer, and whether or not she is acting in self defense and/or to protect the helpless, are her actions justified? Should anyone, ever, under any circumstances, take the law into her own hands? Where do we draw the line for premeditated exceptions? And how does Saramago utilize the third-person narrator's distance to portray the event? Like a defense lawyer's, is his version of events intended to sway us? If yes, how? If no, is he objective and how and why would he have chosen to remain so for this? The ambiguity and the nuances are up to us, the readers, to consider.

And, as writers, if we have any interest in furthering the tradition of those great big sweeping epic social novels of the past, and if we wish to write them for our time, then like them we cannot look away. As Saramago's epigraph commands (from the Book of Exhortations): "If you can see, look. If you can look, observe." We must — we writers — like the doctor's wife who is graced and cursed with sight in a country of blindness, see, look, observe, acknowledge, assist, and, when necessary, with our words, avenge. We must attend. And we would do well to remember, too, what Annie Dillard once said: "Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?"  

In Sickness and In Health: The Doctor's Wife . . . or Mother?

I’ve always regarded the doctor’s wife as an incredible character, a veritable tower of strength, and I’ve loved her since I first read Blindness as an undergrad at the University of Cincinnati, in Michael Atkinson’s Nobel Prize Winners seminar. But why? Because, when the government comes to take her husband away, she lies and says she’s blind too so she can go with him? Because she is so loyal? Because she is so devoted? Because she loves him, unconditionally? And because, too, she’d rather be with him than alone?  And then, on top of all that, because she devotes what’s left of her life entirely to others?

Spousal love. Familial love. Saintly love. The doctor’s wife is a martyr to love. Good Lord! This is why I love her?

Someone come pick my jaw up off the floor.


For I am realizing now, on my most recent read of this novel, just how much I have always bought into that myth of the power of love — the idea of finding someone I might love as much as the doctor’s wife loves her husband, someone I’d want to grow old with, care for, in sickness and in health, until death. Of course, Blindness takes the “in sickness” part of marriage vows to a whole new level.


In a way, this story of the doctor's wife seems a possible extended treatment of the story we never get about Job's wife. Interestingly, whereas Job's wife says, "Curse God and die!" the doctor's wife eradicates God, replaces God, toward the end of the novel: "Only God sees us, said the wife of the first blind man, who, despite disappointments and setbacks, clings to the belief that God is not blind, to which the doctor's wife replies, Not even he, the sky is clouded over, Only I can see you." 

In The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks observes: 

But what distinguishes Saramago’s story from other cataclysmic tales of human degradation is the quality of the drama and consequent reflections that build up around the one seeing character, wife of the optometrist. The account of how the dynamic of the marriage alters, how her personality grows as she assumes both political and moral authority, is at once psychologically convincing and rich with possible analogy. She becomes willy-nilly a mother and a god to her companions, husband included, and as such is faced with appalling choices: in particular her discovery that there comes a moment when it is a moral obligation to kill is daring and in narrative terms totally gripping. But finest of all is the way, despite the growing distance between the minds of the sighted and the blind, despite the horror and filth to which she is constantly exposed, this woman develops a growing physical tenderness toward the other members of the group, a sort of desperate respect for the human body, her own and others’, which she transmits to her companions by simple acts of practical love.



I've even claimed it to be one of my own major themes: “I write about mothers, daughters, and love," I've often said, by way of introduction, at readings. 

And so I’m torn here, confused . . . in a pretty major way.

I’m not saying the doctor’s wife would be a better character, or even more interesting, if she ditched her man at the first sign of sickness. That’s not it at all. I’m just saying I have a problem with the idea that in her storyworld she is the caretaker, the savior, the saint — the ultimate mother. The fact that she and her husband have no children is especially interesting, because it’s almost as if she’s punished for it. No children? OK lady, here, have a husband whose ass you have to wipe for the rest of his days, and here, watch him fuck this girl with dark glasses and forgive them for your own peace of mind, and in fact go ahead and treat her as a younger sister, or even as a wayward daughter-figure (who, btw has been saddled with an adopted kid of her own, which makes you an instant grandmother too), oh, and here’s a married couple and an old man to take care of too!


Before I get ahead of myself, I want to try to unpack that moment when the doctor’s wife sees her husband slip into the bed of the girl with dark glasses:

She was standing there when she saw her husband get up, and, staring straight ahead as if he were sleepwalking, make his way to the bed of the girl with dark glasses. She made no attempt to stop him. Standing motionless, she saw him lift the covers and then lie down, whereupon the girl woke up and received him without protest, she saw how those two mouths searched until they found each other, and then the inevitable happened, the pleasure of the one, the pleasure of the other, the pleasure of both of them, the muffled cries. (174)

And then:

Lying on the narrow bed, they could not have imagined they were being watched, the doctor certainly could not, he was suddenly worried, would his wife be asleep, he asked himself, or was she wandering the corridors as she did every night, he made to go back to his own bed, but a voice said, Don’t get up, and a hand rested on his chest with the lightness of a bird, he was about to speak, perhaps about to repeat that he did not know what had got into him, but the voice said, If you say nothing it will be easier for me to understand. (174)

Surprisingly, she forgives them both immediately (although it should be noted that she will physically put her husband back in his place, in their own bed).

Maybe even more surprisingly, though, the doctor’s wife chooses this moment to tell the girl with dark glasses that she can see. She has been agonizing for days, weeks, about whether or not to tell anyone that she can see. So this moment of her confession — of a secret no longer suppressed and withheld — is of particular importance. And I believe it is in this moment that the doctor’s wife fully accepts the girl with dark glasses (who by this point has, not irrelevantly, proven to be a good mother by adopting and caring for the boy with the squint. Having proven to be a good mother redeems her, which certainly contributes to the doctor’s wife’s decision to fully accept and trust the girl). The doctor’s wife thus initiates the girl into her family, which, in Blindness, is in fact an initiation into the only social structure there is.

While other wandering bands/families lose and gain members regularly, the doctor’s wife charges herself with keeping track of her own, even leashes them, and when, for the first time, she must leave them because it’s obviously easier to search the city for food without having to look after them, she says: “Please, whatever happens, even if someone should try to come in, do not leave this place, and if you should be turned out, although I don’t believe this will happen, but just to warn you of the possibilities, stay together near the door until I arrive” (225). And then she “looked at them, her eyes filled with tears, there they were, as dependent on her as little children on their mother” (225).


Anyway, for the first time, I’m reading Blindness as a novel where all hell breaks loose, where all order is lost, and one woman who is “spared” must become Mother to a whole damn band of folks.

When all order disintegrates, the doctor’s wife is the only person who can (at least a little bit) restore (some) order in their re-created society. 

When old structures crumble, new structures form. We know this.

And in Blindness, Saramago presents us with only one option, as the strongest and most lasting new structure/social order is the doctor’s wife’s “family.” 

Only in the doctor’s wife’s family is there order.

Only in this wife’s family is there stability.

Only because this wife, who was not a mother when the novel began, becomes everyone’s mother in the end. 

Disorder Ordered in The Decameron; Order Disordered in The Canterbury Tales

In my last post, I realized the structure of The Canterbury Tales has everything to do with order disordered. The intended order, from the highest to lowest social status of each individual storyteller, began accordingly, and the Knight goes first. “Oure Hoste” then invites the Monk to tell his tale, but the “Miller, that fordronken was al pale,” interrupts because he will “abyde no man for his curteisye” (3120, 3123). The host reprimands him, saying “Some better man shal telle us first another: / Abyd, and lat us werken thriftily” (3130-31). But the Miller won’t have it and says he’ll “speke or ells go my wey” (3133). And that is the end of the order of storytelling according to social status.

The stories in The Decameron, on the other hand, begin at the onset of an agreed upon order. Desperate to reorder their lives, to bring stability to their newly made, newly established communitas, the storytellers in this case lay out ground rules and proceed democratically. Pampinea, the eldest of the seven women, says:

But since things that lack order will not last long, and since I am the one who initiated the discussions that led to the formation of this fair company, I think that if we are to preserve our happiness, we have to choose a leader from among ourselves, someone whom we will honor and obey as our superior and whose every thought will be aimed at enabling us to pass our time together agreeably. Moreover, to allow us all to experience the heavy burden as well as the pleasure of being in command, and thereby to prevent those who are not in charge from envying the person who is, I think that the burden and the honor should be assigned to each of us in turn for just one day. The first ruler is someone we should all elect, but as for those who follow, the person who has been in charge on a particular day should, when the hour of vespers approaches, choose his or her successor. Then this new ruler will be free to determine the place where we will go and to dictate the manner in which we are to live during the period of his or her reign.

At the end of the day, she appoints Filomena to be the next day’s Queen. Filomena self-consciously makes an amendment to her predecessor’s rules: “I wish to initiate a practice that Pampinea could not introduce because she was elected Queen so late, and that is, I want to restrict within definite limits the subject matter of the stories we are going to tell. This way, because the theme will be announced in advance, each of you will have time to think up a fine story to tell about the topic that has been proposed” (43). After Filomena proposes her idea, we are told: “All of them, both the women and the men, praised this arrangement and agreed to abide by it, except for Dioneo” (43).


No, not really.

For Dioneo is no drunken Miller. He simply proceeds with a polite request, “My lady, like everyone else, I, too, say that the order you have established is quite pleasing and praiseworthy. But I beg you to grant me a special favor, which I would like to see confirmed for as long as this company stays together, namely, that if I do not want to be, I will not be forced by our arrangement to tell a story on the theme proposed, but can tell one on whatever topic I wish” (43). He adds that, to be fair, he is willing to always go last; and so, with “the consent of all the others, the Queen happily granted him his wish, knowing that he was an entertaining and jovial person and clearly perceiving that he was only asking for such a favor so that, if the company ever got tired of talking on their chosen theme, he could cheer them up with a tale that would make them laugh” (43).


Interestingly, Dioneo’s final story and the final story of the one hundred, is deliberately unhappy, a tale of “senseless brutality” (331). It proceeds as follows:

A bachelor, Gualtieri, decides to take a poor shepherd girl, Griselda, as his wife. Before the wedding, he asks if she will please him, never be upset by him, and obey his every command. She says she will, and he takes her outside, has “her stripped naked,” re-dressed in finer clothes, and marries her on the spot (333). Dioneo tells us that she soon transforms into a lovely lady and is beloved by her husband’s subjects, who “prayed for her well-being, her prosperity, and her advancement” (334).

After the birth of their first child, a daughter, Gualtieri decides to test Griselda, and orders a servant to take the child and tell Griselda it must be killed. Griselda suffers silently and hands the girl over. The same thing happens when she later gives birth to a son and Gualtieri tells her, “Woman, ever since you gave birth to this boy, I’ve found it completely impossible to live with my vassals, so bitterly do they complain that one of Giannucole’s grandson’s is to succeed me as their lord” (335). He adds that he’ll have to leave her and find another wife. She says she understands and he must do what is best, and that his happiness is hers.

When their daughter is twelve years old (having been raised with her brother elsewhere), Gualtieri tells Griselda he’s divorced her and that she must return to her father because he’s found a new wife. She does. A while later, he orders her to come back and prepare his house for the new bride. She does. Gualtieri presents the daughter/bride to Griselda and asks how she likes her? Griselda says she’s beautiful, etc., and she hopes that he will be happy. Only then does Gualtieri reveal to everyone that his so-called bride is actually their daughter, and that Griselda will be restored as his wife because she has proven to be so good and true. He says, “I wanted to teach you how to be a wife, to teach [my subjects] how to manage one, and at the same time to beget for myself perpetual peace and quiet for the rest of my life with you” (338). He has her re-dressed again in fine clothes, introduces her to her children, and sets up her father to live comfortably for the rest of his days. And everyone lives happily ever after.


Dioneo, though he tells this tale, nonetheless condemns it: “Who, aside from Griselda, would have suffered, not merely dry eyed, but with a cheerful countenance, the cruel, unheard-of trials to which Gualtieri subjected her? Perhaps it would have served him right if, instead, he had run into the kind of woman who, upon being thrown out of the house in her shift, would have found some guy to give her fur a good shaking and got a nice new dress in the bargain” (339).

Despite his judgment, I can't decide whether he's saying, Don't be doormats, ladies, or attempting to make a joke along the lines of Shamela.


About Dioneo's Griselda, Steven Moore offers in The Novel: An Alternate History: "the last story implies the Christian god's requirement of unquestioning obedience is indistinguishable from the senseless brutality of an arrogant aristocrat, and that only an emotionless doormat like Griselda would submit to such treatment" (262). The structure of the tales in The Decameron, which begins with a story that "exposes Christians as fools and hypocrites," and ends with Griselda, banishes "conventional religious sentiments [...] to the margins of the book" and positions "lawless sex over lawful religion" in the middle (263). 

Moore maintains that The Decameron is more than "a tightly structured anthology of stories" and is in fact a novel (260). He notes, too, that the men don't change but the women do, and that "their development is what makes The Decameron a novel rather than a collection of stories" (265). After Dioneo's first racy story (about a monk, an abbot, and some poor girl caught in the middle of their desires), the women are embarrassed and all blush modestly. They loosen up a bit on the second day, after Panfilo's tale (about a young girl married eight times and delivered as a virgin to her ninth). And by "the time they reach the end of Dineo's [sic] story of the Arab girl with the salubrious hellmouth, false modesty and embarrassment are gone with the wind" (265-66). 

He suggests, too, that the seven women retain their virtue because "the sexual education has been intended all along not for them but for the female readers Boccaccio addressed in his prologue, urging them to shrug off their false modesty and repressed instincts. Could be that some of his liberated female readers will go so far as to turn pro, in which case, as Boccaccio says in the last line of the novel, 'if perchance these stories should bring you any profit, remember me'" (266). Moore, positioning Boccaccio thus as a pimp, reminds us of The Decameron's other title, Prince Galahalt: "Galahalt is of course the noble friend from Lancelot of the Lake, the one who facilitated the adulterous meeting of Guievere and Lancelot and as a result got branded as a pimp by later authors, most significantly by killjoy Dante (Inferno 5)" (266). Moore significantly reminds us that compared to the Divine Comedy, Boccaccio's Decameron has "quite rightly been called the Human Comedy in contrast to Dante's otherworldly one" (263).

Later, Moore jokes that "the lesson of the Decameron, derived as much from its cunning structure as from its cunning linguistics, is to forsake religion and embrace sexuality, especially while you're still young" (266). This is especially funny, coming after his earlier observation: "You can almost see Boccaccio winking when he boasts on the last page of his literary talents: 'I was told by a lady, a neighbor of mine, that I had the finest and sweetest tongue in the world'; 'what is implied here,' translator McWilliam assures us, 'is an act of cunnilingus'" (261). 


I have a feeling I'll be returning to Griselda again in future posts, and even though I didn't write a word about her reappearance in The Canterbury Tales, I at least include her unhappy anti-Romance story here because it speaks directly to so many of my historical texts' treatment of the figure of the obedient wife/suffering woman: Penelope, Job's wife,  Scheherazade, Mme de ClevesPamelathe doctor's wife; and on and on. 

In any case, as Dioneo’s is the final tale, the group decides that the following day they will all return to Florence. Their brief, two-week escape from the city and the plague has come to an end. It’s fitting, then, that Dioneo has provided them with a dose of “senseless brutality,” as they are returning to the senseless brutality of the plague, of the destruction of their families, homes, society. Boccaccio’s introduction to The Decameron details the horrors of the plague, so we know what the storytellers are returning to. And it seems highly likely at least some of them will die, so why go back at all? Perhaps because they still believe in the restoration of society and life as they knew it before the plague. They have not behaved improperly, they have decided not to stay away so long as to raise the suspicions of anyone who doubts their propriety, and aside from telling a few bawdy tales they’ve transgressed no social boundaries. The women remain seemingly virtuous, the men seemingly chivalrous. Their insistence on order, structure, and moral behavior keeps alive for them the idea that the lives they will return to will be ordered, structured, and that moral behavior will be rewarded.

Or maybe they know they are heading back into certain death. And, before taking those fated steps, perhaps they can now console themselves with the knowledge that at least they had these two weeks of pleasure and enjoyment. One wonders about the value of storytelling in such a scenario. What would you do with your last two weeks on earth? Would you get together with a bunch of friends and sit around telling stories, eating good food, singing and dancing in the evening? It doesn’t seem a terrible way to go.


In his “Author’s Conclusion,” Boccaccio reminds us that the stories, overall, are meant to comfort and bring cheer to heartbroken women who suffer the loss of love more deeply than men (because men at least have jobs, can get out of the house and carouse with pals, go hunting, and otherwise occupy themselves, whereas women are stuck inside, in their rooms, with nothing but their sewing and their thoughts). Heartbreak is no joke. How many of us have resorted to a Netflix binge to distract ourselves, post-breakup? These hundred stories, whether read quickly from cover to cover or sporadically by the day or theme or randomly one by one, are not unlike the bingeable shows and movies we console ourselves with in order to escape no matter how briefly the misery and painfulness of our own thoughts. Recall the moment of returning to reality, when your movie’s credits begin to roll. The room comes back into focus. Your heart aches anew. Your throat hurts. You want to blot out the now. So you watch the next episode or search for another movie. Or call a friend. Or find some other way to distract yourself.

Of course, returning to a reality of being heartbroken after temporary distraction is not the same as returning to a reality of a ravaged world filled with piles of dead bodies and the stench of decay all around. It is not the same as returning to a reality of fear of certain, imminent death. But it’s interesting, to me anyway, that Boccaccio’s seeming metaphor for evading heartbreak is evading the Bubonic Plague/Black Death.


Works Cited

Boccaccio, Giovvani. The Decameron. Ed. Wayne Rebhorn. New York: WW Norton & Co., 2016. Print. 

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

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