The Suicide's Wife
David Madden writes out of the oral tradition of his native Appalachia; for his earlier novels and many of his short stories, he drew on his knowledge of the Kentucky and Tennessee mountain people and his awareness of the effect of the region upon them and their interaction with one another. In Madden’s early years, his grandmother exposed him to storytelling techniques and he skillfully adapted those techniques to the writing of stories.
But The Suicide’s Wife is a purely literary work. Its achievement lies not only in its being written from the point of view of a woman, but of a particular woman, the suicide’s wife, in a particular situation. All the action is filtered through the eyes, mind, and imagination of Ann Harrington. Occasionally, Ann’s thoughts in the first person are smoothly integrated into the third-person narration. Bijou is a partly imagined, mostly autobiographical, nostalgic remembrance of one year in the life of a young boy in the 1940’s. The Suicide’s Wife is the totally imagined story of a woman. Yet Madden says the latter is more nearly autobiographical than anything he has written because he imagined it so intensely. In writing of oneself, a writer must achieve distance or the work becomes a Wolfean outpouring, a Proustean debacle. Madden had to achieve the opposite in The Suicide’s Wife: a tight closeness, an intuitive, yet studied awareness of a woman’s body, her mind, her needs, her actions. The novel is short (eighteen chapters), deliberate, and paced with a cadence that carries the reader along.
The Suicide’s Wife is a mystery story. The mystery does not concern the suicide—which remains unsolved and somehow finally becomes beside the point—but rather the interrelationships between the dead and the living. Madden takes this interaction one step further than James Joyce in “The Dead” by relating effects directly to the cause. Without developing Wayne Harrington literally, Madden evokes a presence stronger in death than in life; and the slow, anguishing death of that presence produces the agonizing birth of Ann Harrington. A hovering sense of futility, finality, and mortality elicits the reader’s intense participation in Ann Harrington’s attempt to solve the mystery of her husband’s death, which forces her to examine the mystery of his life and ultimately the mystery of her own limbolike existence.
Ann’s behavior will at first strike many readers as bizarre and implausible. The novel begins in Wayne’s boyhood home in The Thousand Islands in upstate New York, which he ironically called “The Happy Hunting Ground.” Ann pleads to go along with Wayne on a last visit before Wayne’s older sister, Rita, sells it. Wayne’s finger leaving her body awakens Ann in the early morning, and she sees him standing at the window. She barely breathes, not wanting to disturb his solitary reverie, wanting him “to see what he had come to see.” She makes room for him to return to the sleeping bag and sleeps again. She wakes later, alone, hungry, and watches the snow fall. She does not question Wayne’s absence, believing him to be exploring Boldt Castle across the river on Heart Island. She stands hunched in the sleeping bag at the window wanting to make a romantic picture for him. But he does not return, she sleeps fitfully through the night, and at noon the next day, accepting Wayne’s desertion, she leaves. She does not search for her husband; she does not contact his sister; she does not inform the police. She makes no inquiries. She simply believes Wayne has deserted her. Feeling somehow responsible for his act, Ann slips away like a fugitive. She goes home to the small university town of San Francisco, West Virginia, where she and Wayne lived with their children, Mark, Annie, and little Wayne, and where Wayne, a Pearl Poet scholar, taught English.
Ann Harrington is as complex a study in ambiguity as the governess in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. She is a woman of unconscious sensitivity. Wayne comments that “One would almost have thought her body thought.” Ann herself realizes that “She’d never really asked the why of anything. What she knew, she knew in her bones. That had been sufficient to her conscious needs.” But she is a woman controlled and molded by circumstances, suspended unaware in her nihilistic existence, accepting whatever happens to her as her “just due.”
Ann grew up in a Polish ghetto in South Pittsburgh with a drunken, surly father and a vapid mother, both of whom treated their daughter like a stick of furniture, just there, not to be reckoned with. She went to college because her high school Home Economics teacher persuaded her she had “a native intelligence.” Wayne was her instructor at “the Cathedral of Learning,” and Ann, always feeling inferior to him, dropped out of school when he accused her of plagiarism. Wayne pursued her, found her working at Woolworth’s, and married her. Ann passively enjoyed the status of being a professor’s wife, but never made friends with Wayne’s colleagues or their wives or showed any interest in his teaching activities. But she liked thinking, “See? I, a little student, got Professor Wayne Harrington, Doctor of English. See, Father? See, Mother? See, brothers? See, nuns and priests? See, neighborhood? I am important. They all knew things about me.”
(The entire section is 2221 words.)