Although The Secret Woman was a relatively short story, it had many complex themes that should be discussed. The story is told through a husband’s perspective as we follow him through an Opera he attended without his wife, Irene. However, upon hearing a cough, he realizes his wife decided to go there without him. As he follows her throughout the night, his perspective of her completely changes. At the beginning of the story, Irene is described as fragile, shy, and overall, the definition of what a lady should be. However, as he experiences her having relations with other men, his perspective drastically changes. Suddenly, she is disgusting, crude, and immodest. This story highlights a very common problem in society and gender roles. The male gaze praises women who are submissive, kind, and gentle. Women should be alluring or else they are ugly, but not too alluring because then they would be considered promiscuous. This is exactly what we see through the husband’s eyes in the story. His wife is perfect in his eyes until he sees her at this party. After seeing her behavior at the party, he is almost distraught and starts to describe his wife as having satanic behavior. Seeing the story through his eyes is important because it shines a light on this certain mindset many individuals have. He was at the Opera for the same reasons she was there however, he completely neglects that fact and chooses to criticize his wife because she is no longer behaving the way he sees fit for a woman to behave. By shining a light on this, it makes it easier to see how harmful this mindset is for women.
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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.
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.
The Shift of Power in “The Secret Woman”
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s short story “The Secret Woman” tells the story of how dishonesty between a husband and wife can lead to a shift in power because of a shift in perception. In the opening of this story we see the husband lying to his wife explaining that he is unable to go to the green and purple ball because of a patient he has to take care of. In response the wife tells her lie, telling him that she is too shy to be able to go to the ball and put herself in front of a group of people. This promotes the idea that she lacks courage and depends on him, seeing this in the way she made her husband think that she was against the idea of the party.
“As for me.. Can you see me in a crowd, at the mercy of all those hands..” (Pg. 328).
Despite their lies they end up at the ball, just not together. When he first sees his wife he doesn’t think that it’s her, under the impression that she wouldn’t be there. Once he realizes that it is in fact his wife he follows her and notices the way she is projecting herself, surprised, rolling her hips and dragging her feet. Once following his wife, we see that he looks at her more of an object that her own person.
Once seeing his wife for who she truly was, flirtatious, secretive or promiscuous, the way he described her shifted.
“She laughed, and he admired her narrow face, pink, matt and long, like a delicate sugared almond…” (Pg. 327).
This quote shows the way the man viewed his wife in the beginning but once he saw that she was actively choosing this for herself the way he saw her shifted, shown by the stark contrast in how she was described in the end.
“[T]he 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” (Pg. 331).
Her freedom was shocking to him because of who he thought he had known her to be, once he saw that she was in power of her own situation, her own person, he didn’t really know how to deal with it. In the end I think he may have felt unsure of himself in the end, now seeing her at this party he wasn’t sure of his role in their relationship anymore, because he realized his role was always fake and apart of her lies.
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.