The Betrayal of Gender Roles in The Secret Woman

Throughout the story, gender roles are reversed. In this case, Irene is leading the way (literally and figuratively) while her husband cautiously follows behind. She is asserting herself into conversations, dancing with random men, kissing men besides her husband, and overall being independent. Normally, or at least in this assumed time period, men lead the way and women follow suit. Men are very independent while women are brought up to depend on men.

Furthermore, Irene is making fun of her husband, belittling him nonchalantly. Almost as if she is putting him in his place, just as he would to her. Silently, he observed her every behavior making silent comments and having opinions. However, he remained silent and hid his personality, just like a woman is expected.

In general, one would assume her husband would step in, intervene, and stop her from essentially cheating on him. However, instead, he stays quiet and walks away. In this case, they were at a masquerade ball, hidden by masks. Maybe this gave her the confidence to be independent and break away from her stereotypical role, or maybe it was an excuse to fill the role she has longed.

A Conversation About Race

In Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ story “A Conversation About Bread”, two African-American anthropology graduate students Brian and Eldwin discuss the racial implications of an assignment where Eldwin reports on Brian’s childhood story of another school boy, Junior, bringing different types of bread for other black children to try at school. The school children are amazed by the flavors of these new delights such as potato bread and croissants. Brian has an issue with discussing the perspective of the kids as “we”–generalizing all black southern children as a stereotype. He asks, “Why do you want to tell the story anyway?” What purpose does it serve unless it’s to show yourself as somehow better than them?”

Brian clearly feels like the writing casts the children and specifically black children as a novelty. As he references the kids as being portrayed as “an elephant”, an exhibit– look at these odd children who’ve never experienced potato bread or croissants before. Eldwin (who is also black) doesn’t see it that way.

Maybe Brian is what Nabakov would consider a bad reader in that he is seeing himself in the story and using his and his mother’s experiences to interpret the writing? Is Brian being over-sensitive about race? Clearly Brian and Eldwin, although both black, don’t see things the same way. Is it possible to tell this story without a racial bias? If not, is it still okay to tell the story? Who gets to decide especially if the writer is someone of that race? Is it bad to peek at another culture through a story even if it does lead to stereotypes?

This ties in to a lot of the current discussions of implicit bias and whether it’s okay for someone to write from another culture’s perspective. I don’t know the answer but I think it’s important that we continue to have the discussion.

Manipulation of Power Dynamics in Good Country People

Mrs. Freeman's gaze drove forward and just touched him before he disappeared under the hill. The she returned her attention to the evil-smelling onion shoot she was lifting from the ground. 'Some can't be that simple,' she said. 'I know I never could.' (9)

We talk about power dynamics a lot in class, how they form, why they exist, and especially the effects they have on our society. But one thing we haven’t yet talked about is manipulation of these dynamics for personal gain. Manley Pointer in “Good Country People” fools both the simple, religious Ms. Hopewell, and the atheistic, educated Hulga through manipulation of power dynamics which the characters held, and both of their individual value systems.

Ms. Hopewell represents the stereotypical “good country people,” lacking higher education, being religious, hard-working, and disapproving of the modern, atheistic philosophy of Hulga. Pointer represents her idea of “good country people.” She says, “He was so simple…I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple.” (9) Ms. Hopewell follows the Christian idea that simplicity and humility bring wisdom and holiness, and Pointer fully encapsulates the idea of simple, well-intentioned country people. It seems like she believes in a power dynamic of FAITHFUL/sinning (or something like that), with Pointer’s simple persona placing him on the faithful side along with Ms. Hopewell, and against the atheistic Hulga. This persona turns out to be completely fake, but it fooled Ms. Hopewell easily enough.

Hulga represents the well-educated, atheistic, modern person (generally). She acted very much superior towards Ms. Hopewell and her outlook on life. Hulga very much underestimated Pointer due to this haughty superiority over the “country people” around her. She believed her entire relationship with Pointer was governed by the SMART/dumb power dynamic, on which she was smart, while Pointer was simple. She thought she had all the control, even fantasizing about seducing him. But in the end, he flipped this dynamic on its head, she was the dumb one. He says towards the end “And I’ll tell you another thing, Hulga…you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born.” (9) By completely reversing the power dynamic, he completely surprises Hulga (and probably all of the readers, too) and takes away all the control Hulga thought she had.

There is of course more going on in this story than what I’ve pointed out, I didn’t mention Hulga’s leg, or Ms. Freeman, or the contents of Pointer’s bag, or Pointer’s motivations, but this interaction is what I found most striking about this story.

Giving a voice to the Vanishing Elephant

The story “The vanishing Elephant” is narrated by a man who is very invested in the vanishing elephant and works throughout the story to try and understand why the elephant disappeared. The man starts off this with a detailed background of the elephant and his keeper, both old but very unified with each other. We don’t ever read about their thoughts but I think that the narrator is their voice, especially the elephant. It shows unity between the keeper and the elephant in a very divided community because some want the elephant killed. We can see through the narrator’s thoughts, “They[the elephant and the keeper] had been together for more than 10 years, and you could snse their closeness in every gesture and look”(313), that the keeper cares a lot for the elephant and vice versa. When the elephant vanished we learn that the narrator would watch it from afar and the day before it vanished we learn that the narrator thought he saw the elephant shrink. I think it is not that it shrunk but that the narrator actually saw the keeper and the elephant as equal. Because the community saw the elephant as either a burden or a symbol of the town, it wasn’t really seen as equal to people and therefore not seen as having feelings. This is why the narrator gives us insight as to why he imagined the elephant as shrinking. He may have seen them as both having feelings and both equal.

“The Secret Woman” and its take on Relationship Insecurities

“The Secret Woman” by Colette is a short story that follows an insecure husband’s journey of trying to catch his wife in the midst of an affair at an opera house. The husband, originally scheduled to go to the show with his wife, lies about a work commitment and disguises himself before showing up to the opera house.

The story follows the numerous encounters his wife has with other people at the showing, and documents the husbands anxiety and (in a way) hope that his suspicion about his wife is correct. Thankfully, (although she kisses another man) by the end of the story, the husband is relieved to find out that his wife is not having an affair.

To truly digest the level of insecurity and lack of faith that the husband had in his wife’s loyalty to their relationship, it is important to see his reaction to each event.

She’s here for someone, with someone. In less than an hour I’ll know everything.”

The surety in which the husband expects his wife to have an affair with someone else emphasizes how insecurities can warp rational thinking into a twisted reality. As readers we come to find out that the husbands theories are all false, yet for a majority of the story, we are convinced that the wife is unfaithful.

Her husband ran a few steps and reached the couple just as Irene was crying flatteringly, “You big brute!”

This is an example of how the husband jumps to conclusions about his wife’s actions with other people. The lack of trust in their relationship leads the husband to believe that his wife receiving a hug in a crowded opera house by a mysterious man must be evidence of cheating, even though his wife was the one being harassed.

She went down the steps, placed her hand on the shoulders of a warrior who asked her, silently, to dance, and she danced, clinging to him.
“That’s the man,” the husband said to himself.

Following this interaction the husband realizes that his wife didn’t say a word to the warrior after dancing, and promptly left. This 3rd false alarm in the row seemed to finally effect the husband and cause him to think more about the problems on his end. Why is he so insecure about his relationship? Why doesn’t he posses the trust in his wife?

This realization seemed to happen at a very confusing time, right after the man witnesses his wife kissing another tired man who is resting on a bench after heavy dancing.

This time, however, instead of jumping to a conclusion and interrupting the two, he decides to reflect on both of their actions. The last paragraph of the story documents the change in the man’s mentality, and leaves the reader happy with the progression and knowledge that the husband has gained.

In his consternation he no longer feared, no longer hoped for betrayal. He was sure now that Irene did not know the young man, drunk with dancing, who she was kissing, nor the Hercules; he was sure that she was was neither waiting nor looking for anyone, and that abandoning the lips she held beneath her own like an empty grape, she was going to leave again the next moment, wander about once more, collect some other passer-by, forget him, and simply enjoy, until she felt tired and went back home, the monstrous pleasure of being alone, free, honest in her crude, native state, of being the unknown woman, eternally solitary and shameless, restored to her irremediable solitude and immodest innocence by a little mask and a concealing costume.