Astronomer's Wife

by Kay Boyle
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Awakening and Reconnection

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1806

Kay Boyle is a writer whose reputation has never been fixed. Critics through the years have been unable to come to a consensus about whether Boyle should be considered a classic writer or simply a minor, if talented, author of middlebrow novels and stories. Part of the problem is that she was associated with many groups and movements but considered herself a member of none of them. She is primarily identified with the famous Lost Generation of American writers in Paris in the 1920s but disliked the designation. Many of her stories have a strong feminist sensibility, but Boyle preceded many other so-called ‘‘feminist’’ writers and her stories rarely have the didactic tone of much early feminist writing. She is very difficult for critics to pigeonhole. The American poet, novelist, and short story writer William Carlos Williams remarked early in Boyle’s career that her stories ‘‘are of a high degree of excellence; for that reason they will not succeed in America, they are lost, damned.’’ Williams’ prediction has only halfway been fulfilled because Boyle is still read frequently; however, she still has not joined what is customarily known as the canon, or the informal list of the classic authors of literature.

What almost all critics agree on is that Boyle is a master of style, of the elegant use of the English language. Gerald Sykes of the Nation, in a 1930 review, calls her a ‘‘stylist of unusual taste and sensibility,’’ and Katherine Anne Porter, a year later, comments on the ‘‘technical virtuosity’’ of her stories. Babette Deutsch notes that Boyle’s stories ‘‘shock eye and ear with a . . . splendid vigor. They pierce below surfaces with a . . . penetrating intensity.’’ Other critics praise her ‘‘utter clarity,’’ call her an ‘‘exquisite craftsman,’’ and compare her stories to the ‘‘perfect brevity’’ of a sonnet.

In the 1930s and after, though, many critics praised her style while faulting her for what they saw as her chilly attitude toward her characters. Many reviews of The White Horses of Vienna, the 1936 volume in which ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife’’ was published, condemn her writing as chilly, aloof, frigid, and detached from the characters being examined. Much of this attitude can be ascribed to a sense among critics that women writers should write passionately, emotionally, and with great involvement. And although Boyle does write this way at times, in the stories of The White Horses of Vienna she is quite aloof and detached.

Boyle’s characters can also be aloof and detached, especially as in ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife.’’ That is clearly part of the point of the story. The story is grounded in one of the oldest philosophical issues: the division between the mind and the body. This division and the problems that arise from it form the basis of the subterranean conflict, which barely bubbles to the surface, between the astronomer and his wife. The astronomer’s denial of physicality and his detachment from the day-to-day world cause a rift between himself and his wife.

Boyle’s story draws heavily on a source that is never mentioned in the story but whose presence is everywhere. Although she never alludes directly to it, Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem ‘‘When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer’’ underpins this story.

Whitman’s poem is spoken by a narrator who is listening to a lecture by an astronomer. The narrator looks at all of the astronomer’s ‘‘proofs and figures’’ about the motion of the stars and he listens to the astronomer describe the stars in terms of mathematical equations, but ‘‘unaccountabl[y]’’ he becomes ‘‘tired and sick.’’ To feel better, he leaves the lecture room, goes outside, and ‘‘look[s] up in perfect silence at the stars.’’ Whitman’s narrator is sickened by the astronomer’s attitude toward the stars: the astronomer sees the stars simply as expressions of mathematical formulas, not as manifestations of the glory of nature. To feel better, the narrator must return to nature, go out into the ‘‘mystical moist night-air,’’ and experience nature. Nature, for Whitman’s narrator, is both spiritual— ‘‘mystical’’—and physical—‘‘moist.’’ It is not intellectual; it must be experienced.

Mrs. Ames of ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife’’ is much like Whitman’s narrator in that her astronomer— her husband—has extracted all of the physicality and spirituality out of nature, and she wants it back. Unlike Whitman’s narrator, though, she has been numbed to this feeling and not until the eminently physical plumber arrives does she realize what she has been lacking. The story recounts her realization that she needs to reincorporate the physical into her life. Her marriage has reinforced the division of mind and body because her husband is strictly mind and when she serves him she is greeted only by his

The story begins, appropriately enough for a story about a metaphorical awakening, with Mrs. Ames waking up and rising out of bed. But this awakening is ‘‘an evil moment.’’ For her, every day is the same: ‘‘the day would proceed from this [her awakening], beat by beat, without reflection, like every other day.’’ Yet her morning ritual of exercise is a little jarring to the reader, for she chants to herself ‘‘left, left, left my wife and fourteen children.’’ Already in the first two paragraphs the con- flict between the astronomer and his wife is alluded to, and already it is submerged, left under the surface, just as it is in their daily lives.

The narrator’s attention immediately sets upon the astronomer himself, who is ‘‘still asleep, or feigning it’’—little matter because even when he is awake he might as well be asleep. He is a ‘‘dreamer’’ and is always absent from his wife even when in her presence. The narrator, whose consciousness is extremely close to that of Mrs. Ames, constantly uses imagery to reinforce the inexorable and regular nature of this couple’s alienation from each other, comparing their relationship to a pendulum and a wave and undertow.

When the plumber arrives, Mrs. Ames stands at the top of the stairs repeating her name to herself. ‘‘I am Mrs. Ames . . . I am Mrs. Ames,’’ she repeats to herself, ‘‘spoken soft as a willow weeping.’’ She thinks of herself only as ‘‘Mrs. Ames,’’ as a woman whose very name belongs to her husband: she is only the ‘‘astronomer’s wife.’’ She has even forgotten that she is a ‘‘youngish woman,’’ because of the weight of her ‘‘husband’s mind . . . like a chiding finger on her lips.’’

But the taciturn plumber begins to bring her real personality forth. Much like the water that has ‘‘spread as far as the landing and lay docile there,’’ Mrs. Ames’s dissatisfaction with her husband and with the woman that she has become is laid out around her, but she does nothing about it. But the plumber, whose job is to fix things, seems to have been sent here to show Mrs. Ames that she has ‘‘a great dignity’’ and that she is undervalued by her husband. He also is ‘‘grave and stately’’—adjectives that are customarily used to describe such men as the astronomer, not laborers like the plumber—and his identification with the physical world is not disgraceful or shameful. He notices the physical and sensory details about her, such as her ‘‘red kid slippers,’’ as he details what the problem with the drain is.

Mrs. Ames apologizes for the fact that her husband cannot come down to meet with the plumber, but the plumber seems not to care. As the astronomer stays upstairs, only appearing through his voice (he shouts down at ‘‘Katherine’’ that ‘‘there’s a problem worthy of your mettle,’’ but the problem is not identified), the plumber stays with Mrs. Ames, apparently not caring that the ‘‘man of the house’’ cannot be bothered with this problem. While Mrs. Ames suffers from ‘‘despair’’ from hearing her husband, mentally comparing her life to a desert and to floating debris in the sea, the plumber continues with his work, utterly unaware of her boiling emotions.

This is not a story about the plumber’s seduction of Mrs. Ames, but it certainly has those kinds of physical, even sexual overtones, even if they are only treated in the most remote, metaphorical, abstract sense (hence the critiques leveled at Boyle’s stories). Instead, the plumber is a sort of savior figure. He is ‘‘brutal,’’ but this word in its common use does not really fit what Boyle seems to mean; instead, Boyle uses this word in its connotation of ‘‘brute,’’ or animal, for, like an animal, the plumber is intimately connected to the physical world. But he is certainly also a savior: as he pries up the drain cover, Mrs. Ames looks down at him and ‘‘saw that he was looking up into her face, and she saw too that his hair was light as gold.’’ She begins to notice, and appreciate, physical details about him: ‘‘his lean cheeks, his high, rugged bones, and the deep seams in his brow,’’ his fingers, and even the veins in the backs of his hands. It is clear that she no longer notices these things about her husband—and that he probably never noticed such things about her.

By the end of the story, the spatial construction of the earthy plumber and the lofty astronomer, and Mrs. Ames’s position suspended between the two, is the central image and meaning of the story. While the astronomer remains upstairs, in his bed, using only his mind, the plumber descends literally into the earth, into the drain. Mrs. Ames’s dissatisfaction with her husband’s separation from the earth and all it represents—physicality, gravity, the pleasures of the senses—becomes so important that she makes the great symbolic decision to follow the plumber out of the house, away from her husband’s sphere of influence, and into the earth itself, following the plumber, whose body she can’t help but notice. At the end, emotion becomes connected with the plumber’s physicality when he remarks that he must attack the drain trouble outside and that ‘‘there’s nothing at all that can’t be done over for the caring.’’ The ‘‘trouble,’’ of course, is symbolically the ‘‘trouble’’ in the Ames marriage, and Mrs. Ames tells her servant that ‘‘the trouble is serious, very serious. When Mr. Ames gets up, please tell him I’ve gone down.’’ Descending into ‘‘the heart of the earth,’’ Mrs. Ames hopes to reconnect with what has been missing in her marriage and her life. Like the narrator of Whitman’s poem, to truly understand the Earth and her place in it, she must distance herself from the very person whose job it is to explain those things to her.

Source: Greg Barnhisel, Critical Essay on ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

How Boyle's Story Marks a Break From Traditional Narrative

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1832

As part of the modernist movement of the 1930s, the work of Kay Boyle marks a break from traditional narrative writing on various counts. In ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife,’’ Boyle departs from traditional romance by depicting a woman’s defection from her remote, intellectual husband when she comes in contact with an earthy, responsive plumber who comes to fix the overflowing toilet. The astronomer’s wife, by definition an appendage of her husband, breaks with all traditional expectations of conformity and fidelity by responding to a man other than her husband, who is beneath her status socially; while the story is certainly romantic, it is a revision of traditional romance. Central to the story is the division of men and women into the realms of intellectual and physical. Boyle explores and challenges ideas of men and women as polarized and separate by providing characters that integrate these qualities, and connect on the basis of this integration. Setting and nature imagery, as well as allusions to systems in the human body, lend themselves to Boyle’s depictions; characters are frequently re- flected in the world around them, and Boyle uses unusual, terse language, particularly verbs, to flesh out the responses of her characters. The style and form of the story support Boyle’s leanings toward the experimental as well. In Kay Boyle, Author of Herself, biographer Joan Mellen characterizes Boyle’s writing as beginning ‘‘smack in the middle of things, with no exposition to introduce the reader to the characters, no explanation of their situation. One dramatic situational moment replace(s) the oldfashioned imperatives of plot, rising action, and resolution.’’ In keeping with this idea, ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife’’ is nonlinear in form, itself a break from the expected style at the time it was written, and told through the eyes of a woman.

It is no accident that the story begins with the main character waking up since the story is at heart about the protagonist’s metaphorical awakening to the possibility of connection with a man. The first sentence is a generalization about the process of awakening, the first moments of consciousness, which the narrator calls ‘‘evil.’’ According to this first sentence, in the first moment of consciousness, all things stand still and are painfully clear before the day’s distractions commence. The second sentence, however, begins with the words, ‘‘But for women,’’ suggesting that the opening sentence refers only to men. Thus, the second sentence makes a clear distinction between the worlds of men and women, establishing a tension between them, and locates the narrative in the realm of a woman. This marks a shift from average readership and assumption that the point of view in a story is masculine.

According to the narrator in the story, women cope with the horror of consciousness when they awaken by springing to action; they distract themselves with tasking and motion. This is at least the case with the astronomer’s wife, who, when she feels the ‘‘interval gaping’’ with self-awareness, charges into her day by calling out for coffee and starting her morning exercise. She is a woman who keeps misery at bay by keeping busy, for once she gets moving, she can ‘‘come into her own possession.’’ These descriptions of activity in association with the astronomer’s wife lend her the impression of physicality and motion. The words associated with her character are deliberately, disarmingly active; for example, she ‘‘fetches up’’ her voice rather than calling out, and her mayonnaise gets a ‘‘severe thrashing.’’ Although she spends her days almost entirely in sight of her husband, she manages to be ‘‘absent from him all the day in being clean, busy, kind.’’ Imbued with this sense of physicality, her day is like the functioning of a body; once begun, ‘‘through every room the pulse takes up its beating’’ and the ‘‘day would proceed from this, beat by beat.’’ Her tasking keeps the circulation moving, just as she does with her own body when she begins her day. By contrast, her mind is deliberately turned off.

The astronomer’s wife awakens in the upstairs of the house while her husband sleeps or feigns sleep. When she awakens, it is unclear whether or not they are even sleeping in the same room or bed. Later, when his voice is heard, it is only from another room, as he insults her, that the reader learns her name is Katherine. His slumber, real or feigned, is a metaphor for his general condition; he is silent and still most of the time, withdrawn from his wife, and generally dwells in his own mind. The astronomer is a man of thought, who goes high up, sits on the roof, in the mountains, or lies still, thinking. He is disassociated from the earth and the world of the body. He is generally described as sitting, lying, or lingering, never in any active verbs. The celestial world he scrutinizes is cold, distant, dead, untouchable, and this is the impression conveyed in relation to his wife. ‘‘The mystery and silence of her husband’s mind lay like a chiding finger on her lips’’ and, as the plumber appears to notice, the light has been extinguished from her eyes.

Katherine’s routine is interrupted both literally and figuratively by the arrival of the plumber. Because the astronomer is a man of thought rather than action, his wife is forced to attend to domestic situations such as the overflowing toilet. Pulled out of her routine, she puts on her scarlet and white dressing gown, suggesting passion and purity, both out of character for the woman introduced so far. As the plumber climbs the stairs, the wife repeats to herself over and over, ‘‘I am Mrs. Ames,’’ as if rehearsing a role, as if this is an identity that does not belong to her, or as if she doesn’t know who she is. In the introduction to Boyle’s essay collection, Words that Must Somehow Be Said, editor Elizabeth S. Bell characterizes Boyle as committed to ‘‘making known the cries of the politically voiceless.’’ Virtually voiceless at the opening of the story, in the process of her contact with the plumber, the astronomer’s wife finds a voice, and makes deliberate choices.

When the plumber meets Mrs. Ames, he accommodates her by quieting his voice and his step, but he addresses her and meets her gaze fully, both the reverse of her experience with her husband. By virtue of his profession, the plumber poses a challenge to the woman’s experience of men; her life is about service to a man so it is a new thing that the plumber comes to provide a service to her. They discuss the problem of the toilet in a matter of fact way, as if they are on the same terms, and, notably, the plumber is described as ‘‘dealing as a woman does with matters under hand.’’ Oddly, Katherine is described as standing at the edge of a ‘‘pure seeming tide,’’ an unexpected choice of words for water from an overflowing toilet. Plumbing, and by association the body, is not portrayed as dirty, but as clean and natural as a tide, suggesting a connection to nature, a force that comes and goes daily. The word choices indicate an unorthodox view of the corporeal, and the ease with which the two deal with the situation suggests they are allied by their relationship to the natural world. The plumber’s conclusion is that the system needs a valve, effectively a regulatory device for balancing the flow of water in the drain, and he rebukes her, ‘‘If you had a valve you wouldn’t be caught like this.’’ Like the plumbing system, the astronomer’s wife needs a means of regulating the forces in her life. Their interaction also provides an opportunity for the astronomer’s wife to have a voice, and she answers the plumber ‘‘without hesitation.’’ In this context she can be herself, for ‘‘[h]ere was a man who spoke of action and object as simply as a woman did!’’

Most of the powerful action that takes place between Katherine and the plumber occurs in the garden where the lush vegetation and flowing water correlate to the characters’ emotional connection. Katherine sees the male world as like the ocean or the desert, vast and empty, in sharp contrast to her garden ‘‘with the vegetation flowering in disorder all around.’’ In describing the garden, Boyle uses language that suggests power in nature, a thing uncontrolled, in sharp contrast to the cleaning and tasking that usually make up Katherine’s world. During this scene in particular, Boyle uses language that suggests exceptional power and activity in everyday existence. For example, both Katherine and the plumber ‘‘lift’’ their faces, and she notices that his hands are ‘‘bound round and round with ripe blue veins of blood.’’ All the descriptions of the plumber at this point are sensual and analogous to nature, and from this perspective they are ‘‘comprehensible to her.’’ When the plumber goes into the drain and reports that ‘‘something has stopped the elbow,’’ she relates to his practical language, especially the simplicity of the word elbow, so strongly that she is overcome. She sits down ‘‘powerless, her senses veiled, with no action taking shape beneath her hands’’; the plumber effectively interrupts her habitual motion, so fundamental to coping with distress, and forces her to wrap her mind around the knowledge that men exist who are like her. In the midst of this revelation she sees weeds ‘‘springing up,’’ forces of nature, and has no impulse to manage or destroy them the way her husband has controlled and managed her. Rather, she reflects on her realization that ‘‘her husband was the mind, this other man the meat, of all mankind.’’

Once she has absorbed this knowledge, the astronomer’s wife decides to go into the ground with the plumber. Going down and underground is a metaphor for the unconscious, what is buried beneath the surface, and suggests emotion and sexuality. In going deeper into the earth, into the body, she opts to explore herself more deeply, rather than evading herself through activity. There is no actual need for her to go into the drain, but she tells the servant girl ‘‘it is very serious,’’ speaking more for her internal condition of shifting consciousness than the external. She moves away from her husband in a deliberate way, instructing the servant ‘‘when my husband gets up, tell him I’ve gone down.’’ Physically and emotionally, she moves in the opposite direction from him. She steps into the heart of the earth, effectively into her own heart, from which she has been divorced. In so doing, she integrates her brain and her body, systems that have been previously divided based on her experience of men and women.

Source: Jennifer Lynch, Critical Essay on ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Lynch is a freelance writer in northern New Mexico.

The Transformation that Katherine Ames Undergoes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1911

Over the course of a career spanning more than fifty years, and throughout the publication of more than thirty-five books, Kay Boyle became intensely interested in many different types and schools of writing. An important figure in the avant-garde literary movement that took place in Europe in the 1920s, Boyle once openly stated, ‘‘The writer expresses. He does not communicate.’’ Over time, however, she came to reverse this opinion, ultimately believing that it was a writer’s duty to share his or her most impassioned convictions with readers. Her writing style correspondingly widened from the experimental and highly personal to the more conventional as she sought to explore her social concerns about human relationships and the world around her.

‘‘Astronomer’s Wife’’ first appeared in The White Horses of Vienna and Other Stories in 1936. Paul Sladky notes in Reference Guide to Short Fiction that it is one of Boyle’s ‘‘transitional’’ stories, looking ‘‘backward to her earliest thematic concerns—the quest for identity, the hunger and need for human love and contact—and forward to the simpler, less experimental narrative style of later years.’’ Occupying a middle ground, ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife’’ both expresses one woman’s moment of revelation and communicates Boyle’s beliefs in the inherent capacity of people to transform the world.

Most of Boyle’s stories, however, demonstrate love that is never attained as people fail to forge real, meaningful connections. As Sandra Whipple Spanier points out in her introduction to Life Being the Best and Other Stories, a collection of Boyle’s short fiction spanning 1930 to 1936, Boyle is ‘‘an idealist in her view of human possibilities but a pessimist about their chances for fulfillment.’’ However, Spanier also notes one important way that ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife’’ differs from the majority of Boyle’s stories—it ‘‘end[s] in a glimmer of hope for rescue.’’ The story’s final paragraph affirms the human capability to grab hold of a chance for redemption, even when it arises in most unexpected forms.

Boyle’s contemporary, the poet William Carlos Williams, noted as early as 1929 the power of Boyle’s short stories and her ‘‘comprehensive, if perhaps disturbing view of what takes place in the human understanding at moments of intense living.’’ He also commented on the unique perspective Boyle brought to her work: ‘‘Few women have written like this before, work equal in vigor to anything done by a man.’’ Boyle’s transcendence of adhering to gender roles in her writing reflects her lifelong interest in women’s rights. Boyle’s feminism, as demonstrated in her personal experience and in her writings, predates the women’s movement by several decades. The subject of ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife’’ is a feminist one: as described by Sladky, it ‘‘deals with the loss and recovery of a woman’s sense of self in an oppressive marriage, a subject that, at the time, was a dilemma widely experienced by women but not widely discussed.’’ It thus ‘‘trumpets a brilliant herald for the feminism that lies decades ahead.’’

In Katherine Ames, the astronomer’s wife, Boyle has created a woman thoroughly modern except for the lack of a mutually respectful relationship with her husband. In light of the cerebral Mr. Ames, who might ‘‘lay still for hours’’ or ‘‘linger in bed’’ long after the sun has come up, she not only carries out the traditional responsibilities of a homemaker, but she has taken on many of the responsibilities that would normally befall the man of the house. In so doing, she demonstrates a decidedly masculine side. For instance, she has the technical wherewithal to know to turn off the outside switch for the water as soon as the toilet begins leaking— though she does so while wearing her nightgown.

Ironically, the astronomer degrades Mrs. Ames’s responsibilities in their home. When he overhears the exchange between the plumber and his wife, he calls out, ‘‘there’s a problem worthy of your metA tle!’’ Both Mrs. Ames and the plumber comprehend the derision in his statement, the implication that his work—thinking about the infinite world above their heads—is more important than his wife’s work of caring for his earthly needs. Although Mrs. Ames appears to pay no attention to her husband, the plumber notices ‘‘a wave of color’’ in her face. Although a man who uses his hands and not his mind by profession, the plumber shows far greater sensitivity than does the astronomer.

The plumber also continually demonstrates his awareness that it is unusual to have a woman take charge of such maintenance problems. He believes that going into the underground drain pipes is ‘‘a study for a man who likes to know what’s what’’ and proposes as a matter of course that Mr. Ames might like to come with him. He looks at Mrs. Ames ‘‘curiously’’ when she tells him that Mr. Ames is still in bed.

The plumber is a strong contrast to the astronomer. He is a ‘‘tough, hardy man.’’ His body radiates vitality with his ‘‘strong, weathered face’’ and ‘‘flesh . . . as firm and clean as wood, stained richly tan with the climate’s rigor.’’ The astronomer, though never actually seen by the reader, has an implied weaker physique, one made for inert contemplation. Even in action, when not sitting on the roof or lying in bed, he is prone to ‘‘wander[ing] down the road,’’ not moving with purpose as does the plumber. He is only interested in otherworldly concerns—his mind ‘‘made steep and sprightly flights, pursued illusion, took foothold in the nameless things that cannot pass between the thumb and finger.’’ The plumber, however—a man whose work relies on using his hands—must focus on the concrete and ‘‘likes to know what’s what.’’ Mrs. Ames also specifically notes the differences between the two men. She appreciates that the plumber speaks simply and clearly, whereas her husband—who normally maintains his ‘‘mystery and silence’’—is unable to communicate to her his concerns and interests. For instance, while she is able to understand the plumber’s explanation of the drains—‘‘something has stopped the elbow’’—when the astronomer ‘‘spoke of height, having no sense of it, she could not picture it nor hear.’’

The plumber habitually and ‘‘suddenly’’ descends into the drain trap, in direct contrast to her husband, whom Mrs. Ames acknowledges would ‘‘‘never go down there alive.’’’ Mr. Ames ‘‘‘likes going up . . . on the roof, or on the mountains.’’ As the plumber’s voice reaches her from the ‘‘depths’’ of the earth, speaking clearly and plainly of ordinary and sensible matters, Mrs. Ames comes to the surprised and triumphant realization that ‘‘men were . . . divided into two bodies. . . . Her husband was the mind, this other man the meat, of all mankind.’’ She links her husband with the spiritual, for he ‘‘had always gone up, as the dead go,’’ but she links the plumber with the body, for ‘‘she knew now that there were others who went down, like the corporeal being of the dead.’’ As Robyn M. Gronning explains in an article in the Explicator, ‘‘Katherine can understand the plumber because he is down to earth. A man without his head in the clouds . . . [a man who] shares Katherine’s practical, everyday world.’’

Mrs. Ames also responds to the plumber because, although he is definitely representative of a masculine being, he demonstrates certain feminine characteristics in his mannerisms, actions, and physique. The narration states that he deals with things ‘‘as does a woman with matters under hand.’’ Although he wears heavy boots, he ‘‘quieted the sound of his feet’’ while walking down the hall. According to Mrs. Ames, ‘‘Here was a man who spoke of action and object as simply as women did!’’ Boyle further uses similar images to describe Mrs. Ames and the plumber, thus linking their feminine aspects. The plumber’s protective leather apron recalls Mrs. Ames’s smock, which she buttons up to the neck. Mrs. Ames’s blonde hair is described as forming a ‘‘strange dim halo,’’ while the plumber’s hair is ‘‘light as gold.’’ When he reemerges from the drains, Mrs. Ames sees ‘‘a bright little piece of his hair still shining, like a star.’’ According to Gronning, ‘‘Separately, Katherine and the plumber are androgynous because they share in the positive virtues of each gender.’’

Mrs. Ames, further writes Gronning, ‘‘comprehends [the plumber] because he is a man who shares in her feminine world.’’ He also is able to provide ‘‘true answers’’ to her questions. Mrs. Ames appreciates this straightforward approach because her life with the astronomer has been only a ‘‘continuous query to which there could be no response.’’ The plumber comforts Mrs. Ames with his assertion that ‘‘[t]here’s a remedy for every ill. . . . Sometimes it may be that . . . or sometimes the other thing. But there’s always a help for everything amiss.’’

For the duration of the story, brief though it is, the dialogue between the two has double meaning. Mrs. Ames hears the plumber’s words, not as referring to the house’s plumbing problem, but to the inadequacies of her life. ‘‘Things come out of herbs and make you young again, he might have been saying to her; or the first good rain will quench any drought; or time of itself will put a broken bone together.’’ Further, he tells her ‘‘[t]here’s nothing at all that can’t be done over for the caring.’’ She understands that he may be speaking either of the pipes or of her, for ‘‘his eyes were fastened on her face in insolence, or gentleness, or love.’’ Mrs. Ames announces her intent to alter her life to the servant. ‘‘The trouble is very serious, very serious,’’ she says, referring to her life situation, not the plumbing pipes.

Arm in arm with the plumber, Mrs. Ames will go down into the tangible world of the physical and the corporeal—she is descending at last from Mr. Ames’s lofty heights to join the rest of mankind. As she and the plumber ‘‘stepped into the heart of the earth,’’ they are really stepping into the mass of humanity. Through establishment of a connection with the plumber, Mrs. Ames assures herself of the unexpected opportunity to create and participate in a fulfilling relationship, both with a man and with society. As Spanier sums up Boyle’s ‘‘central story,’’ it has ‘‘a belief in the absolute essentiality of love— both on a private and a public scale—and a sense of tragic loss when human connections fail, leaving individuals who are desperately in need of contact bounding off one another like atoms.’’ Unlike many other of Boyle’s characters, Katherine Ames is able to grab a chance at love and change her life.

While in Paris in the 1920s, Kay Boyle said that stories ‘‘were written in protest, and also in faith, and they were not unlike fervent prayers offered up for the salvation of man, for the defense of his high spirit, for the celebration of his integrity.’’ In ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife,’’ Boyle presents a character who unhesitatingly grasps her own salvation, and in so doing, affirms the potentiality for the rest of humankind to use compassion to transform the world.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

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Critical Overview