Double Standards in The Secret Woman

This short story, written by Colette in 1924, is indeed short, however it is packed with rich language that reveals underlying societal understandings of female sexuality that drive the main character’s thoughts. Irene, the wife of the character whose perspective the story is told through, is at first portrayed as fragile and dependent. When her husband suggests that he might not be able to attend the ball with her, Irene expresses her discomfort with the idea of being alone at such a social function. Throughout her reaction, which insinuates dependence on her husband, her husband observes her “delicate hands” (328). Later on – after witnessing his wife take liberty and control over her sexuality – they are described as “satanic.” This implies that because Irene took control over herself and others, she was somehow impure.

At the same time, Irene’s husband finds power in his own sexuality. While his exact motives are unclear when he lies to his wife to arrive at the ball in disguise, it seems as though he has come to meet someone with the assumption that because of his wife’s dependence on him, she would not be going alone. At the beginning of the story, he is seen with another woman, however his agency is never described as impure or monstrous. This creates a double standard as the main character views his power with indifference while his wife’s – although liberating – is unexpected and threatening.

The suppression of female sexuality at the time of the story’s writing in 1924 was oppressive and apparent. In today’s world, while strides towards normalization have been made, traces of it remain. In the context of politics or even in private spaces, women are often looked down upon for taking up too much space and being self-sufficient. Colette’s portrayal of a woman trying to find liberty and power outside of the male sphere remains true and relevant.

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