Sherwood Anderson’s story The Other Woman is in itself an example of irony. The story’s narrator relates his interactions with another individual, a man engaged to be married to a very proper and physically attractive woman yet who becomes obsessed with an admittedly far less attractive female who is married to the proprietor of “a small cigar store.” The extent to which Anderson’s story relies on irony is evident in the very first paragraph:
"’I am in love with my wife,’ he said--a superfluous remark, as I had not questioned his attachment to the woman he had married. We walked for ten minutes and then he said it again. I turned to look at him. He began to talk and told me the tale I am now about to set down.”
The fact that the man feels compelled to confess his love for his wife is ironic in the sense that (A) the narrator hadn’t inquired as to that subject, and (B) it would expected that the man loved his wife, lest the marriage should be dissolved. Taking into account the prevalence of loveless marriages that no doubt exist around the world, one could suggest that a man’s love for his wife is not a given, even though genuine love or affection was probably present at the time of marriage. That Anderson’s “protagonist” should make such an unprompted comment, though, does lend The Other Woman an essential element of irony.
Another example of irony is the seeming dichotomy involved in the man’s infatuation with a woman he doesn’t find attractive despite – or because of – his impending nuptials. The man’s reaction to the cigar store owner’s wife is inexplicable unless this woman represent the ‘forbidden fruit’ to a man engaged to another. As the narrator describes the situation, the man’s obsession with this woman is inexplicable even to him:
“She was, as he assured me at least twenty times in telling me his tale, a very ordinary person with nothing special or notable about her, but for some reason he could not explain, being in her presence stirred him profoundly. During that week in the midst of his distraction she was the only person he knew who stood out clear and distinct in his mind. When he wanted so much to think noble thoughts he could think only of her. Before he knew what was happening his imagination had taken hold of the notion of having a love affair with the woman.”
Affairs of the heart are occasionally the product of a particular type of psychosis. The phenomenon of stalking, for instance, is born of mental disorder that prompts an individual to obsessively pursue another person despite multiple forms of rejection from the target of the affection. As Anderson’s story progresses, the man continues to relate his story to the narrator, including the matter of an affectionate letter sent him by his fiancée in which she devotes her life to him, with the caveat that he must reciprocate:
“You must love me and be very patient and kind. When I know more, when after a long time you have taught me the way of life, I will try to repay you. I will love you tenderly and passionately.”
An interesting bit of prose, this letter. It suggests an uncertainty regarding the union that is at variance with the passions conveyed, and hints at the man’s sense of emptiness regarding his commitment to his fiancé. From the text, we understand that the man is a government official with a passion for writing poetry. It is possible that his intellectual stature exists on a different plane than that of his fiancé, which contributes to his ambivalence regarding the sanctity of their blessed union.
The man’s discussion of his fiance’s letter reveals another element of irony in the story. If, as this analysis has suggested, the man is intellectually bored by his fiancé/wife, he is nevertheless impressed by her letter, and further confused regarding his feelings for the other woman:
"Now you see clearly enough what a mess I was in. In my office, after I had read my fiancee's letter, I became at once very resolute and strong. I remember that I got out of my chair and walked about, proud of the fact that I was to be the husband of so noble a woman. Right away I felt concerning her as I had been feeling about myself before I found out what a weak thing I was. To be sure I took a strong resolution that I would not be weak.”
One cannot help but notice the irony in the above sentence: “To be sure I took a strong resolution that I would not be weak.” The man has acknowledged that he is a weak individual, incapable of sustaining commitment or remaining loyal with respect to women (an interesting admission coming right at the time when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified guaranteeing women the right to vote). The suggestion that he must remain strong in order to not be weak, however, is ironic to the point of being comical – no doubt the author’s intent.
The Other Woman is an example of irony in every sense of the word. The plot is ironic, and the unnamed man’s actions and comments are replete with irony. And the timing of Anderson's story, being published during an epochal period in American history, is, perhaps, its greatest example of irony.