Astronomer's Wife

by Kay Boyle
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Style and Technique

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Boyle’s short stories are characterized by fluency of language, whose fresh, striking images and metaphors give her characters’ lives a sense of immediacy. This story unfolds through a gradual revelation in relation to these metaphors rather than through crises of action. For example, the occupations of the astronomer and the plumber are metaphorically significant. An astronomer is concerned with a study of heavenly bodies, and as such, has his eyes fixed upward. Boyle’s astronomer seems completely disconnected, mentally and spiritually, from earthly matters. Furthermore, he keeps himself physically remote from even his wife, seldom speaking to her. Throughout the entire story, he remains behind his bedroom door. Mrs. Ames realizes—and tells the plumber—that her husband only goes “up,” never “down.”

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The plumber’s vocation suggests several things about his role. A plumber’s attention is fixed, literally, on the earth—buried pipes and drains and such. This story’s plumber, who remains nameless, seems completely at ease with his strong, capable body and with his mission in the cavernous drain. He goes “down” readily into the earth and speaks to Mrs. Ames from within the drain. Amazed, Mrs. Ames sits “down” on the grass, and during a meditative few moments, begins to see the plumber, always “down,” as a symbol of the physical body of man, in contrast to her husband, always “up,” representing man’s mind. Through simple word choice—“up” and “down”—Boyle represents opposing planes of living. As she and the plumber enter the earth together, he has begun, metaphorically, to plumb the depths of her despair and will remedy it as easily as he repairs drains, with simple human love and communication.

Historical Context

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Advances in Narration
‘‘Astronomer’s Wife’’ shows many of the advances and innovations in narration that were commonplace by the 1930s but were revolutionary in their time. Traditional first-person narration came directly from the voice of a character and used ‘‘I,’’ while traditional third-person narration came from the voice of a being outside of the story who would describe all, some, one, or none of the character’s thoughts. But in the late nineteenth century, a French author named Gustave Flaubert, who is most famous for his novel Madame Bovary, attempted to meld the two types of narration into a form that he called the ‘‘free indirect style.’’

In the free indirect style, the voice of the narrator speaks as someone outside of the character whose thoughts are being described, but at times the voice of the narrator becomes the voice of the character’s thoughts—the diction and sentence structure and imagery will change and become similar to the way the character uses language. ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife’’ is a good example of the free indirect style, for as Mrs. Ames becomes more and more interested in the physicality of the plumber and begins to draw mental comparisons between the dry, intellectual personality of her husband and the vital, earthy character of the plumber, the narrator melds into her, and begins to use much shorter, sharper sentences and physical imagery.

Boyle also uses the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique developed by authors such as James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf. In a stream-of-consciousness narrative, the narrator attempts to transcribe, or write down, the exact thoughts of a character. This technique was influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud, who believed that many of the small, seemingly insignifi- cant details of how people talk and act can tell a great deal about their mental makeup. Mrs. Ames’s growing use of words that describe physical objects and sensory impressions, as well as her inability to stop thinking about her dissatisfaction with her husband, indicate to readers that her choice to descend into the drainpipe with the plumber is in fact a very important and symbolic decision.

The Lost Generation
Kay Boyle was a member of a group of artisticminded young Americans who, after World War I, moved to Paris to live and write and paint and sculpt and, in Boyle’s words, ‘‘be geniuses together.’’ Some members of this group were the writers Ernest Hemingway (whose novel The Sun Also Rises is considered one of the best portraits of this group), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Robert McAlmon, and Hilda Doolittle. The writer Gertrude Stein, another American who had been living in Paris for some time, dubbed these Americans the ‘‘Lost Generation’’ partially because of their aimlessness, dissatisfaction with their home country, and refusal to assimilate into the culture of France. Boyle, however, disliked this term.

Boyle arrived in Paris in 1922 with her first husband, but she had already had a great familiarity with the artistic avant-garde, having known many of the artists while living in New York. During the 1920s, she published stories in the so-called ‘‘little magazines’’ that were the outlets for these Lost Generation writers. She became especially good friends with the writer and publisher Robert McAlmon, and much later added chapters to his chronicle of the Lost Generation, Being Geniuses Together. At the end of the 1920s, Boyle separated from and divorced her first husband and married another expatriate artist, Laurence Vail, and with him moved first to the south of France, then to Austria and England. The 1930s—a period in which the main figures of the Lost Generation moved on, burned out, or became even more famous—then became Boyle’s most productive period.


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Austenfeld, Thomas Carl. American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics and Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford, and Hellman. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Bell, Elizabeth S. Kay Boyle: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Carpenter, Richard C. “Kay Boyle.” English Journal 42 (November, 1953): 425-430.

Carpenter, Richard C. “Kay Boyle: The Figure in the Carpet.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 7 (Winter, 1964/1965): 65-78.

Chambers, M. Clark. Kay Boyle: A Bibliography. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2002.

Elkins, Marilyn, ed. Critical Essays on Kay Boyle. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997.

Ford, Hugh. Four Lives in Paris. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987.

Lesinska, Zofia P. Perspectives of Four Women Writers on the Second World War: Gertrude Stein, Janet Flanner, Kay Boyle, and Rebecca West. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.

Mellen, Joan. Kay Boyle: Author of Herself. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Moore, Harry T. “Kay Boyle’s Fiction.” In The Age of the Modern and Other Literary Essays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “Kay Boyle: Example to the Young.” In The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books, 1920-1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison. New York: Liveright, 1972.

Spanier, Sandra Whipple. Kay Boyle: Artist and Activist. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

Yalom, Marilyn. Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1983.

Literary Style

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Point of View and Narration
The narration of this story is in the third-person limited, but it is not a conventional third-person limited. Boyle’s narrator is very close to the mind of Katherine Ames, and records her thoughts. This is essential, for at the center of the story is her growing realization that she feels that her husband stunts her emotional life—a realization that takes place completely silently.

In addition, the style in which the story is written mirrors Mrs. Ames’s increasing recognition of her feelings about her husband. When the narration describes Mrs. Ames’s thoughts, the sentences are long and filled with adjectives, reflecting the freedom she has in her mind. But when the narrative begins describing Mrs. Ames’s actions and her interactions with the plumber, the sentences become shorter, showing how constrained she feels. As the story progresses toward its epiphany at the end, the language expands and incorporates more imagery, again mirroring Mrs. Ames’s expanding emotional state.

Certainly this story is infused with symbolism. In the story’s broadest manifestation of symbolism, Boyle turns one of the best-known symbolic structures in Western culture upside down. In this story, sinking, going down, or falling is good, while rising or ascension has a negative connotation. The astronomer has his head almost literally in the clouds; his wife notes that he likes being up high, on the roof or on top of the surrounding mountains. Yet that loftiness has caused him to neglect his wife’s emotional needs. The plumber is the opposite of the astronomer; he has his feet on the ground both literally and figuratively. His body engages with the earth and, at the end of the story, descends into the earth, and his earthiness is the salvation of Katherine Ames.

These same symbols work on a narrow level, as well. The plumber’s raw physicality represents, to Mrs. Ames, the promise of the sensual life that she has been deprived of while living with the astronomer. The astronomer’s dreaminess and his separation from the material concerns of daily life symbolize how Mrs. Ames, as well, has been cut off from those elements of life—yet unlike the astronomer, she craves them.

Although it is not overt, the story also makes some oblique symbolic references to Greek mythology. Like Icarus, who made wax wings in order to fly only to see those wings melt when he passed too close to the sun, the astronomer’s loftiness and his scorn for the earthbound seem to be his downfall. Similarly, the journey that the plumber and Mrs. Ames are about to take as the story ends suggests any number of similar journeys in classical mythology. For example, Orpheus, the semidivine avatar of sensual music, had to descend into the underworld in order to rescue his wife, Eurydice, who was imprisoned by Hades, king of the dead. Boyle inverts this myth, having the plumber take his symbolic lover into the underground in order to save her from her lifeless husband.

Boyle’s inversion of traditional values—in her story, going up into lofty intellectual realms is bad, and sinking down into the sphere of the solely physical and sensual is good—characterizes the irony of this story. The story begins with foreshadowed irony, for in the first paragraph Mrs. Ames sings to herself a rhyme about a man leaving his wife, when at the end it is she who symbolically leaves her husband. In the following paragraph, the narrator remarks that Mrs. Ames, ‘‘once out of bed, had come into her own possession’’; in fact, Mrs. Ames’s daily life is barely her own possession, since she is so dominated by the way of life that her dry husband has made her live. The rest of the story shows this kind of subtle irony—seemingly innocent choices of words that reveal themselves to be carrying a much greater meaning when the reader reaches the end of the story.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: Divorce is still illegal in many Catholic European countries, and even where it is legal it is extremely rare.

1990s: Approximately half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, and divorce is common even in such Catholic nations as Italy— where it became legal only a few years ago.

1930s: The ‘‘traditional family model’’ of a husband working and a wife taking care of the house is quite common, especially among middle- class families.

1990s: Middle-class wives are extremely likely to have a college education and to work outside of the home. In American society as a whole, most families see both parents working outside the home.

1930s: Feminism and women’s roles in social and political causes surge during the years of the depression. Thanks to New Deal programs and both Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt crusading for women’s issues and for women to take active roles in political offices, the number of women in high governmental positions increases dramatically. President Roosevelt positively affects the number of women in government by appointing the first female cabinet member, the first female ambassador, and the first woman on the Court of Appeals.

1990s: The number of women involved in social causes and political offices is the highest it has ever been. Women such as Jody Williams, Princess Diana, and Mother Teresa are recognized the world over for their commitment to humanitarian and charitable efforts. In government, after the 1992 election, the number of women in politics increases. Fifty-four women hold positions in Congress, including six senators and forty-eight representatives. By 1992, 13.4 percent of judicial officers are women and two women, Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, hold positions on the Supreme Court.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Boyle, Kay, ‘‘Words That Somehow Must Be Said, Selected Essays 1927–1984,’’ edited by Elizabeth S. Bell, North Point, 1985.

Boyle, Kay and Sandra Whipple Spanier, Life Being the Best and Other Stories, New Directions, 1988.

Carpenter, Richard, ‘‘Kay Boyle,’’ in College English, November 1953, pp. 81–87.

Deutsch, Babette, review of A Glad Day, in Nation, November 12, 1938, p. 514.

Gronning, Robyn M., ‘‘A Discussion of Androgyny in ‘Astronomer’s Wife,’’’ in The Explicator, Vol. 46, No. 3, Spring 1988, pp. 51–53.

Hart, Elizabeth, review of The White Horses of Vienna, in Books, February 9, 1936, p. 5.

Mellen, Joan, Kay Boyle, Author of Herself, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Porter, Katherine Anne, ‘‘Kay Boyle: Example to the Young,’’ in New Republic, April 22, 1931, p. 279.

Review of The White Horses of Vienna, in Springfield Republican, February 16, 1936, p.7a.

Seaver, R. W., review of The White Horses of Vienna, in Boston Transcript, February 15, 1936, p. 3.

Sladky, Paul, Reference Guide to Short Fiction, 1st ed., edited by Noelle Watson, St. James Press, 1994.

Sykes, Gerald, review of Wedding Day and Other Stories, in Nation, December 24, 1930, pp. 711–12.

Van Doren, Mark, review of The White Horses of Vienna, in Nation, March 4, 1936, p. 286.

Walton, E. H., review of The White Horses of Vienna, in New York Times, February 9, 1936, p. 7.

Whitman, Walt, The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy, Viking, 1990.

Williams, William Carlos, ‘‘The Somnambulists,’’ in Transition, November 1929, p. 148.

Further Reading
Bell, Elizabeth S., Kay Boyle: A Study of Short Fiction, Twayne, 1992. Bell’s book is probably the standard reference work for studies of Boyle’s short stories. In brief descriptions and analyses, she outlines the most important themes and techniques of Boyle’s work.

Elkins, Marilyn, ed., Critical Essays on Kay Boyle, G. K. Hall and Co., 1997. Although not focused exclusively on Boyle’s stories, this anthology gives the reader a good introduction to a number of different critical approaches to the study of Boyle’s fiction.

Spanier, Sandra, Kay Boyle, Artist and Activist, Paragon House, 1986. Spanier’s biography of Boyle is not as thorough as Joan Mellen’s but is, nonetheless, interesting.

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Critical Essays


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