The Paradox of Connection: Anonymity and True Selfhood in the The Secret Woman

The short story, The Secret Women, explores how anonymity creates a paradox of connection: it allows people to disconnect from others (on a personal level) and to connect with a larger group of people at the same time. In the story, a man and his wife attend the same party in secret from each other. They go to the party in costumes so that they can be anonymous and disconnected from their personal lives. At the party, people are engaging in intimate physical acts, however, since everyone is in costume, no one has any real love for eachother; the hooking up is all surface level. The narrator of the story describes the way that the man’s wife feels after hooking up with someone:

She was going to leave 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…

(Collette 331)

Although the anonymity of the party shields the guests from true intimacy, it allows them to express hidden aspects of themselves and their desires. The narrator adds that the wife felt the “monstrous pleasure of being alone, free, honest and crude, native state of being the unknown woman” (Collette 331).

The paradox of connection in the story is similar to what happens in the realm of the internet. Recently, I read part of a book by social media scholar Sherry Turkle, called “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.” In the book, Turkle makes the argument that the anonymity of the internet has made people think that they are more connected, yet, when it comes down to friendships and meaningful relationships, people are less connected. She writes,

Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other.

(Turkle 1)

This alludes to experiences of anonymity in the Secret Woman of being alone and free while at the same time interacting with many different people. This poses an interesting question: is it possible to be our true selves on the internet and/or is it possible to be our true selves with our most personal friends and partners in real life?

Work Cited

Colette. The Secret Woman. Date unknown.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books, New York, 2011.

Anonymity in “The Secret Woman”

The short story “The Secret Woman” written by Colette follows a husband trying to catch his wife cheating. Over the course of the story, the husband follows Irene through a ball where everyone present wears masks that obscure their faces. As the husband follows Irene, it becomes clear to the reader that she is acting abnormally, “… the eel-like Pierrot noticed him. ‘Is that a declaration, purple Domino?’ He did not reply, for he was stifled with surprise, waiting and nightmare…” (44). This shows that Irene is acting very differently to how her husband would expect her to act, to the point of leaving him speechless. The reason why Irene is acting unusual is because she believes herself to be anonymous and that no one at the ball will recognize her, “… she was going to leave again the next moment, wander about once more, collect some other passer-by, forger 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…” (46). This shows that the reason she is acting abnormally is because of her anonymity, because she is the “unknown woman” who doesn’t need to worry about being criticized for her actions.

This is similar to how people often say things they wouldn’t normally say and do things they wouldn’t normally do when they believe that no one is watching or that they can’t be identified. Overall, Irene’s surprising behavior in “The Secret Woman” can be explained as her believing that she can say what she wants and act how she wants because she won’t be recognized.

The Elephant in the Room: Social Norms and Negative Feedback Loops

In “The Elephant Vanishes”, the elephant is able to disrupt society by simply disappearing. With media coverage, police investigations and the main character’s obsessive thoughts, the disappearance is the center of the story and causes a lot of excitement.

The elephant, by simply existing, shook up the lives of the town. The social ‘norm’ was a town that didn’t own an elephant. However, when every zoo refused to take it, they were almost forced into it. The main character’s entire life was also changed when this elephant disappeared. His daily routine shifted and he nearly got a girlfriend, something that was definitely not in his plan for the future.

However, as the story continues, these shifts are corrected, like a negative feedback loop. The big change of the elephant was fixed by its disappearance, and the town was happy to return to normal. They quickly began to forget about the entire event, bringing everything back to the normal baseline.

The main character also returned to normal, deciding not to ask the woman on a date and filling his time with work and ‘normal’ activities, without the elephant.

This entire story felt like it was exposing how difficult it is to truly breakout of a social mold and do something that is different. The people around you and even your inner self will do everything in their power to force you back into whatever societal expectation you have gone against, no matter how small.

The Elephant Vanishes and Worldviews

I really enjoyed “The Elephant Vanishes.” I think that the main message of the short story was how we, in our day-to-days lives, disregard things outside of our worldview and things that disagree with our opinions. In psychology, this is called the self-confirmation bias: “The tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs (Encyclopedia Britannica).” I think that Murakami was trying to teach us something about ourselves; we must not let our own worldviews and cemented opinions affect how interpret new evidence and phenomena. This is particularly important in our modern political climate. Both sides remember information supporting their points and disregard information contradicting it. Maybe this is just my interpretation, but I think it’s an important realization to have in our current zeitgeist.

202 Checkmates and Coming of Age

On the surface, 202 Checkmates seems like a story about a girl and her dad’s relationship and how playing chess allowed her to more deeply bond with her father. In reality, it is more of a coming of age story in which the chess allows the girl to see the world and her parents in a new light rather than bringing them closer together. When they first start playing, the girl sees her father as “the god of chess” much like how she probably sees him in her life. She is still very young and hasn’t had much exposure to the outside world and different perspectives. All she knows is her dad’s and her family’s. Initially their chess is very insular. It is just them playing together with no other distractions or inputs from the outside world. It is just their game that they play together. Her father dominates her every time and so he becomes this all knowing figure who could never lose.

Once chess is taken out of their own personal world and into the park is where the coming of age takes place. Realizing that her dad is not perfect and is in fact beatable is the girls awakening to the outside world. Part of coming of age is realizing that your parents are not these all knowing, perfect, god like creatures. They are human and have flaws and there comes a point in every kids life where they begin to see their parents for who they truly are which is simply human and nothing more. After the girl sees her father beaten for the first time her world changes and so does their chess game. She now sees her father’s flaws more clearly and deeply and that he is not only beatable by the outside world but by her as well. Manny is her first true influence outside of her dad and her family and he inadvertently helps her realize these things about her dad. After the father’s huge loss in the park the story really shifts and the girl begins to see the world more clearly. Manny opens her eyes up to moves she had never even considered on the chess board and he does the same to her world.

The Secret Woman: Why the Character’s Relationship Was Doomed From the Beginning

In Collete’s “The Secret Woman” a woman cheats on her husband who may also have cheated on her. I would argue that even before the cheating, their relationship was bound to fail because they don’t really know one another.

In the beginning of the story the husband sees his wife as gentle and femenine describing her as a “delicate sugared almond” (42) while at the party he describes her in much darker ways such as “satanic” (46). At the party it is said that the wife is very comfortable and doing her own thing “as calm as if she had been alone” (45). This shows that the husband doesn’t know his wife’s true self if he’s calling her at her most comfortable satanic after thinking she was extremely delicate and lady-like. On top of this, both of them lie to each other about where they are going and live double lives. Therefore, they do not seem to know each other very well.

Because they do not know each other well and put on a facade for their partner, their relationship is built on lies. It is also built on the MALE/female binary that also negatively affects their relationship. This results in a poor relationship that is bound to fail.

Naive Country People

After reading this story I believe Flannery O’Connor created the bible salesman to show Mrs. Hopewell’s character or mindset of thinking she is superior to everyone else makes her naive. At first, this man seemed religious, salt of the earth, hard working and kind: however, we learn that he wasn’t what he seemed. He was the exact opposite. Mrs. Hopewell believes that she is a good judge of character and that she knows what is and what isn’t good. She believes good country people are simple and even beneath her. She describes the bible salesman “Lord she said, he bored me to death but he was so sincere and genuine I couldn’t be rude to him. He was just good country people, you know,” she said, “just the salt of the earth.” She thinks that because the man said he was selling bibles to makes ends meet she believes she was better than him. This mindset caused her to not really see his true character and instead they were taken advantage of.

Hypocrisy, and Destruction of Binaries

In The Secret Woman, The main character a doctor lies about going to a ball to his wife Irene. Although his purpose in unknown, we can assume he is there most likely to cheat on his wife, a concept and idea that leave him with no qualms or guilt, except he refuses to remove his costume for fear of recognition. As seen in the story due to his assumption that as a man, he is the dominant member of their marriage binary, and such things don’t matter to him. However, he runs into his wife later on, who also said that she wasn’t attending, makes no such effort to conceal herself or shows no shame mingling freely between different groups of people. Her husband, despite being on the dominant side of the MALE/female binary, is still fearful and refuses to expose himself to others while his wife, is free to do as she pleases, when in his eyes she should be in his position. As previously mentioned, his actions at the beginning of the story receive no hostile language or tone, Irene is compared to various animals as her freedom to be with who she choses is considered monstrous.

Power in “The Secret Woman” by Collete

After reading “The Secret Woman” on my own, I was left wondering about many instances in the story. I was most intrigued by the lies told between the main character Irene, and her husband. At first glance, I did not really think about the meaning behind Irene cheating on her husband, but after the discussion in class, its importance came clear.

Irene and her husband both lied to each other and ended up at the opera ball alone. When Irene was at the ball, I found Collete’s description of Irene’s disguise and movements very powerful. In addition, when it is revealed that Irene’s intentions were unloyal to her husband, I was pretty surprised but I also think that the woman cheating being surprising represents a double standard. After her husband discovered this, he was stunned that she had power over herself and her choices, and he did not know how to handle the situation. I think after he caught her he felt like he did not have the power in their relationship anymore and she was in control, which he did not like.

This story reinforces the idea that in society, men cheating is normalized, but when a woman is cheating it is absurd and frowned upon.

A different lens. Perspective, and a giant elephant.

From a normal book/story perspective, The Elephant Vanishes is a good story. It does everything right and hits all hallmarks of an average story. It keeps you engaged, is cohesive, has very presentable and digestible themes, and has a natural logical conclusion (rhetorically wise, it ends with an event that drives a pragmatic person insane). But one thing is different about this story, something stands out, something doesn’t fit in. Perspective.

A story about an elephant and his keeper has a shockingly low amount of dialogue from the elephant and his keeper, it actually has no amount of dialogue directly from these characters. Murakami took a different approach to the telling and perspective of the narrative of this story when he went about writing it. Instead of having the reader come to know, relate, and eventually understand the elephant and the keeper, both individually and their relationship to one another, via dialogue, interactions with themselves, and other characters, it was done entirely through indirect characterization. The narrator is an unnamed man who we come to learn about and understand through traditional methods (direct characterization), everything we know about the keeper and elephant is through the lens of this man. We learn about how the narrator thinks, how he acts, how he lives, and how he adapts. He remarks upon himself at the end of the story commenting on how he has made his company a lot of money because of him, showing he is adept at anticipating and accommodating the ever-evolving needs of the consumer base we know he has 0 relations to. When asked how he feels about his work he mentions that he has a personal and professional opinion. He mentions that in his professional opinion he believes that each kitchen should have a certain unity, and his personal opinion is that he doesn’t really care. To him, a kitchen is a kitchen and it really doesn’t need more than the basic essentials to function. Not only does this display his pragmatism, it also shows that despite not being emotionally invested or relating any way to his work, but he can also still put himself in the place of the consumers and anticipate what they would want. He is a man who is incredibly capable of adapting to his current environment, he logically dissects his situation and responds appropriately. Another way we are shown how he thinks and approaches situations is in his conversation with the unnamed woman he meets at a party. He is very aware of the situation he is in and is acutely aware that the topic would immediately end all real conversations or chemistry they had. Murakami characterized the narrator as someone who is adaptable, pragmatic, obsessive, and aware. This is the lens through which the story is told, and the lens through which this story is taken to a new level.

A story about an elephant and zoo keeper vanishing is not an entirely new, inventive, groundbreaking, or particularly interesting topic. However, the perspective of the story makes it such. We get to see how this event unfolds through the lens of someone we have come to know and have a good grasp on their character. It deeply disturbs him as it is something that cannot be logically explained. It started as something that he would take a bit of his time out of in the morning to keep track of, or an interesting topic to read and ponder about to something that is actively intruding into his personal life and has introduced a chaotic imbalance into his life. When discussing the elephant with the woman at the party, he talks about him glimpsing the elephant shrinking and the keeper enlarging. The woman is perplexed but can fathom this, the narrator, however, trusts what he sees but is disturbed by it. He saw something that could not, should not, and would not have normally happened. And he tries, but ultimately fails to grasp it, and it shows in how he comments on how he doesn’t think he can trust his own perceptions anymore. His sense of normality and comfort in his surrounding has been replaced with a sense of uneasiness and imbalance. And this is where we see the true impact of the elephant vanishes. We as the reader cannot truly fathom the premise of the story, it’s not something we can relate to in any way shape, or form. But through the characterization and progression of the story through the narrative element of the unnamed narrator, we can see the actual effects of the story. Transforming a decent story and premise into a masterclass on how to change a story through perspective.