Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Colette’s “The Other Wife” chronicles an awkward but in these days not uncommon situation—a new wife running into the woman who used to be married to her husband.
Alice, Colette’s female protagonist, has never before laid eyes on Marc’s ex-wife. They encounter her in a restaurant, when the maitre d’ is trying to seat the married couple very close to the small table where the other woman is seated. Marc, obviously recognizing the ex-wife and wishing to avoid any unpleasantness, tells the maitre d’ they’d rather sit elsewhere, and after they’ve ordered, he tells Alice why.
From that moment on, it is all Alice can do to avoid staring at the woman continuously. Marc insists that his previous marriage was doomed from the start— “total incompatibility!” They divorced “quickly, quickly,” and no residual feelings remain, either good or bad. He’s just sorry that this encounter has made Alice “uncomfortable.”
Not at all, Alice insists: “She’s the one who must be uncomfortable.” Yet in fact the ex-wife sits placidly in her chair, smoking, gazing out the window. Marc characterizes her as a woman who could never be satisfied, in contrast to Alice, who is “obviously” completely happy. But his reasons for this conclusion are interesting (and very revealing of him as a character). He thinks that because his ex-wife did not indulge him as Alice does, then his ex-wife must not have been satisfied in their relationship—when in fact he was not satisfied with her because she did not place him at the center of her world. He assumes that the act of indulging his wants must be satisfying to the woman as well.
Alice, on the other hand, envies Marc’s ex-wife for her independence. The ex-wife clearly doesn’t feel she needs to indulge anybody. While Alice is nearly jumping out of her skin from nervousness, the ex-wife isn’t uncomfortable in her singlehood at all; she rests “her head...against the back of the cane chair, her eyes closed with an air of satisfied lassitude.” Colette’s last sentence tells us Alice even sees the woman as “superior.”
Why would this be? Because the Other Wife is divested of the need to indulge a man, to be subservient to his wishes and whims. Alice wishes she could be so lucky.
This story can be found in The Collected Stories of Colette, available from Amazon here.
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