Astronomer's Wife by Kay Boyle, 1936

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by Kay Boyle, 1936

Kay Boyle published over 30 books in her career, including more than a dozen novels, seven story collections, and five volumes of poetry. Yet her work and its influence on American letters has received relatively little scholarly attention. Early in her career as one of the Lost Generation writing in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, Boyle crafted fiction that developed from experimental and intensely personal expression—a fiction characterized by innovative language and narrative structures—to a more conventional technique—one that communicated social concerns about a shared social world common to her readers.

"Astronomer's Wife" appeared in The White Horses of Vienna and Other Stories in 1936 and reflects in many ways a transitional story from this early period. It looks backward to the author's earliest thematic concerns—the quest for identity, the hunger and need for human love and contact—and forward to the simpler, less experimental narrative style of later years. In terms of subject the story is also forward-looking. It deals with the loss and recovery of a woman's sense of self in an oppressive marriage, a subject that at the time was a dilemma widely experienced by women but not widely discussed. In this sense "Astronomer's Wife" trumpets a brilliant herald for the feminism that lies decades ahead.

"Astronomer's Wife" expresses an archetypal mind/body conflict that expands into opposition between intellect and intuition, contemplation and action, love and denial. The story centers concretely on the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Ames, the astronomer and his wife. Mr. Ames is a solitary dreamer who contemplates an abstract, theoretical world; Mrs. Ames is a woman of concrete, physical animation whose actions reveal a life without reflection, the busy removal of spots from her husband's vest or the thrashing of mayonnaise for his lunch. While the astronomer's deep thoughts have, to his mind at least, reached dignified status, they are so intellectually top-heavy that they remain incomprehensible to his wife. As a result the astronomer's soaring thoughts "sounded in her in despair" and returned her "in gratitude to the long expanses of his silence" where she withdrew in bewildered self-doubt.

Much of the story's power rests in the fact that Mr. Ames remains asleep in bed throughout the story, an offstage character revealed only through the mental and emotional effect he has on Mrs. Ames. He spends his life pursuing questions that have no answers, "to which there could be no response," punctuated by his scorn for anything mundane or nonintellectual. By contrast, Mrs. Ames connects with the world through active engagement of flesh and bone. When the morning brings its "evil moment on awakening when all things seem to pause," she immediately fills up the "interval gaping" with action that seems more necessity than pleasure. For Mrs. Ames "questions to which true answers would be given" are the thing, not questions like her husband's, which pursue mere illusion, addressing "the nameless things that cannot pass between the thumb and finger."

The story's tension centers inside Mrs. Ames, who steps gingerly around Mr. Ames's sleeping presence, treating him and what he might say or do with complete reverence. In the end, although never stated directly, this expectation proves soul-sap-ping beyond endurance. By presenting the antagonist through his effects on Mrs. Ames, the story obviates the need for explicit confrontation. This structure successfully creates such a strong sense of repression that the plumber's arrival to repair the broken water closet—symbolic of Mrs. Ames's life—offers tangible relief.

The plumber represents symbolic choice for Mrs. Ames. In his earthy sexuality and belief that every problem is solvable by merely asking the right question—to which true answers will be given—he presents the path to epiphany where Mrs. Ames can realize her own self-worth. The symbolism of earth (life/vitality/action) and sky (mind/thought/contemplation) provides the contextual frame for Mrs. Ames's choice.

Near the end the archetypal character of the plumber emerges literally from the earth so full of symbolism that the moment carries much of the force and meaning of the story. With his hair "shining, like a star," he delivers Mrs. Ames, in effect, to herself. The plumber's intuitive confidence in action, so unlike the paralyzing effect of her husband's intellectual judgment, causes Mrs. Ames to liberate herself. Suddenly, she recognizes her connection to a tangible world about which she has always cared deeply, a connection free from scorn and judgment. When the plumber says, "There's nothing at all that can't be done over for the caring," Mrs. Ames is validated.

The story ends on a brilliant poetic note—perhaps a bit too glaring in its brilliance. The golden-haired plumber describes the cow he once fed "flowers and things and what-not" when she lost her cud, presenting a powerful image of salvation and redemption, two crucial dimensions of life that Mrs. Ames has been missing until this point. The final image of her clutching the plumber's arm as they descend into the heart of the earth is ripe with symbolism shaded by romance.

The story reflects Boyle's undying concern with individual action in a social world and marks, partially, the early transition of a writer concerned with personal expression to a writer concerned with communicating social meanings to an audience situated in a problematic world. Mrs. Ames surely aims in that direction.

—Paul Sladky

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Astronomer's Wife by Kay Boyle, 1936

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Astronomer's Wife by Kay Boyle, 1936