The Secret Woman: Dutiful, Dainty, and Dependent

Published in 1924, “The Secret Woman” by Colette is a critique on the societal expectations of women to be subservient to men. Colette reveals the issues with the gender hierarchy in a beautifully-written short story set at an opera ball. At the beginning of the story, Irene and her husband both lie to each other, saying that they are not going to the ball. Irene acts disgusted by even the thought of attending. Her husband recognizes her at the ball and sees her dancing and kissing other men, while keeping his own presence hidden.

Irene’s actions are in stark contrast to the idea of traditional femininity. Behind her disguise, she is unknown. She can be her true self and have power that she otherwise does not have. Although she is physically wearing a mask and costume at the ball, her true disguise is being innocent and weak at home with her husband. At the opera ball, Irene takes control of her decisions. She feels the absence of gendered norms due to her anonymity, giving her confidence.

Colette leaves the reader wondering about the true intentions of the husband. There is no clear answer as to why the husband lied to his wife about attending the opera ball, but the reader can guess. Perhaps he intended to cheat himself? Maybe this was his first time going, maybe he had been many times before. Either way, two things are clear. Firstly, his entire demeanor changed when he discovered Irene at the opera ball. He initially went to the ball expecting to enjoy himself, but when he discovers Irene, he becomes obsessed with following her. He watches her interact with different men without saying a word, but the language he uses to describe her completely switches. Before the ball, he calls her hands “delicate,” and after he sees her cheating, he says “her little satanic hands, which were entirely black.” To him, she is no longer his wife. Secondly, the husband buys into the double standards that are placed upon women and the gender binary. He believes that it is acceptable for him to push the boundaries of their marriage, but when he discovers that she does too, she is immediately outcast. To him, he is allowed to lie about going to the ball, but she is not. This extends into larger society as well; men usually have power over women.

Irene chose the men she interacted with, spent a moment with each, then moved on. If she had one secret lover instead of meeting with strangers, she would still be seen as an object to that man. Her husband feels the loss of control over his wife. She was able to be liberated from societal expectations, even if just for a night. However, when she takes off the mask and costume, like so many other women, she will be forced to return to being dutiful, dainty, and dependent.