The Other Woman (La Femme Cachée) by Colette, 1924

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THE OTHER WOMAN (La Femme cachée)
by Colette, 1924

"The Other Woman" ("La Femme cachée") is the title story of Colette's 1924 collection. It was only the second time that Colette had published under her own name. Her famous Claudine novels were published under her first husband's name, Willy, and work after 1904 under the pen name of Colette Willy. The title of "The Other Woman" plays on the double meaning of the French femme, which is the word for both "woman" and "wife."

In the story a couple, in all likelihood on their honeymoon, stop for lunch while touring. Instead of allowing themselves to be led to a vacant table by a window overlooking a bay, Marc insists that he and Alice sit in the middle of the room. The restaurant is busy, and the waiter is overworked and perspiring. After ordering lunch for them both, Marc explains that the move was in order to prevent Alice from sitting next to his first wife, who is there unexpectedly.

In the very brief tale Colette unobtrusively underlines the contrast between the two women, who by coincidence are in the same place as their husband in common. Alice's blond, wavy hair is enclosed within the veil of her fashionable hat. Generously proportioned and bronzed from the holiday sun, she exudes the immoderate happiness of a newly married young woman. The blinding midday light tellingly changes the color of her eyes from blue to green. The first wife, who is not named, also has blue eyes, something Alice had not previously known. She is dressed in white, a serene parallel to the opalescent sky and the bleached sea of high summer. Her smooth brown hair is uncovered, glossily reflecting the sun and the sea, and, amid the throng of other diners in large sun hats and of children in red, she sits calmly smoking, self-contained and indifferent both to her surroundings and to the couple. The composure and sophistication of the first wife reflect on Alice, making her appear both naive and youthfully dependent on her husband's praise.

Marc is possessively proud of his young wife, teasing her about putting on weight and complimenting her on her looks. He rather smugly compliments himself about her feelings and attitude toward him: "The way you indulge me is so charming, darling…. You're an angel…. You love me…. I'm so proud when I see those eyes of yours." He clearly is affluent, with a chauffeur who is eating his lunch elsewhere. He has well-manicured hands, but there is no suggestion that he is handsome. His features are ruddy and regular, and his hair is turning gray.

The presence of his ex-wife, however, imposes subconscious alterations in the couple's relationship, and Colette shows how this changes their behavior. To control his posture, Marc sits up straighter than normal during the protracted meal, while Alice sometimes laughs too loudly, as if they are ill at ease with the situation. This is reflected in their conversation, for though each thinks that the other has forgotten the first wife, they inevitably return to her. Early during the lunch Marc had explained their incompatibility and their amicable, quick divorce. Toward the end of the meal, however, he makes the mistake of trying to explain further the breakdown of their relationship. He says to Alice, "To tell you honestly, she wasn't happy with me…. I just didn't know how to make her happy, that's all. I didn't know how." Alice angrily and triumphantly denounces the woman as difficult, the reaction of someone unconsciously trying to bolster her creeping self-doubt, and the word is taken by Marc to underline his own lack of responsibility for the failure of his first marriage.

But as they are getting ready to leave, while Marc is paying the bill and calling for the chauffeur, Alice cannot help wondering out of curiosity and envy what this other wife knew that she does not. What had she discovered to be lacking in her husband? In short, what makes the other woman appear to be her superior?

Colette is at her unsentimental best—analytical, observant, and exact—in vignettes such as this. "The Other Woman" has no hero or heroine. It merely points out in a subtle, unemphatic way that a relationship is colored not only by the memories and aspirations of the two involved but also by the psychological adjustments that have to be made following a small and seemingly insignificant revelation.

—Honor Levi