Astronomer's Wife

by Kay Boyle
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707

Early in the morning, Katherine Ames steps quietly out of bed, trying not to disturb her husband—who either is still asleep or pretends to be. Mrs. Ames—as she is called throughout the story—comes “into her own possession” by beginning the day with brief exercises. She will stay busy with household duties, deeply ingrained habits that absent her from her husband’s constant, unknowable silence.

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Silence is her astronomer husband’s dominant characteristic. The couple’s relationship is built on the understanding that he is a man of the mind, who spends his days studying, meditating, contemplating the heavens through his rooftop telescope, or wandering through the mountains. His constant silence informs his wife that she is part of his life only in the sense that man is “the new arching wave, and woman the undertow that suck[s] him back.” Mrs. Ames feels chided and shamed by her husband’s silence, which constantly reminds her that he is preoccupied with mysterious ideas that she can never comprehend. As a result, she has forgotten her youth; no light shines from her gray eyes.

The serving girl announces the arrival of the plumber, who has come to repair an overflowing toilet. Mrs. Ames discusses the problem with him in a grave, dignified manner. She delicately avoids using the name of the offending appliance, referring to it not as “the wash basin,” but as “the other.” After studying the situation, the plumber suggests that the pipes are stopped up, rebukingly adding that the problem would not have occurred if there were a valve. During this discussion, Mrs. Ames speaks in nervous, hushed tones, reminding the plumber that her sleeping husband should not be disturbed. She is unsettled by the “relentless eye” of the plumber, who has been looking at her directly. His face softens a bit as he tells her he will check the pipes from the drain opening in the garden.

Suddenly, from behind the closed bedroom door where he has listened to the plumbing conversation, the astronomer’s voice rings out (the only time in the story that he speaks): “Katherine! . . . There’s a problem worthy of your mettle!” Her only apparent reaction to his scorn is the heightened color of her face, which the plumber notices as they step into the sunlit garden, which is full of a profusion of flowering plants.

For the first few moments in the garden, Mrs. Ames is in despair, still hearing her husband’s taunt. She tells herself that a man’s mind is concerned with great problems, dreams, and illusions, rather than with tangible things, while for woman, life is like the ocean where she must cling to floating debris for survival. When she looks down she sees the plumber gazing up at her from the trapdoor to the drains. His hair is “as light as gold.” He suggests in a bitter voice that perhaps her husband, a man of knowledge, would like to come down into the drains. Confused, Mrs. Ames responds that her husband never goes downward, only up—on rooftops or mountaintops. She notices the plumber’s lean, rugged build, his firm, clean, and tanned flesh. She can understand his strong hands holding the trapdoor rings.

Like a star, the plumber’s light-gold hair glows from down in the drain. Understanding what this man is saying to her about the stopped-up elbow drain, Mrs. Ames is surprised to be able to comprehend anything that a man says. She sits motionless on the ground trying to make sense of this discovery that some men go “up” and others “down.” She concludes that her husband is “the mind,” this other man “the meat,” of all humankind.

When the plumber emerges from the drain, Mrs. Ames questions him softly, looking up at him as he answers, smiling, that the elbow joint can easily be fixed, as can “everything a-miss.” She begins to feel youth and delight as he talks of problems solved, his eyes full of “insolence, or gentleness, or love.” Mrs. Ames stands up and calls the servant, telling her to report to Mr. Ames that she has gone “down.” Then she enters the earth with the plumber, knowing that what he has said is true.

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