Astronomer's Wife

by Kay Boyle

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What is the theme of the story "Astronomer's Wife"?

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A woman’s sense of her inferior position in her marriage, and her resulting disappointment, is an important theme of the story “Astronomer’s Wife.” Mr. Ames is cold and unemotional. Immersed in his thoughts, he seems to be least interested in his wife, Mrs. Katherine Ames. He spends hours either lying still in bed or examining the sky with his telescope from the rooftop. “The impenetrable silence of his brow” causes her to believe that he is some kind of an exalted person, occupied with grand thoughts and ideas, while she belongs to some lowly and ignoble group whose existence has no worth or value. Her feeling is very well expressed in the following sentence from the story:

That man might be each time the new arching wave, and woman the undertow that sucked him back, were things she had been told by his silence were so.

Mr. Ames remains physically absent in the story. His only appearance in the story is when he yells at Mrs. Ames quite derisively, ‘‘There’s a problem worthy of your mettle!” This rebuke implies that he is contemptuous of his wife and has an inflated sense of self. The idea of man’s sense of his own superiority to woman is another important theme of the story.

The story however ends on a positive note. Mrs. Ames has come across a man who is completely opposite in nature to her husband. Unlike Mr. Ames, the plumber is attentive to her. He is sensitive and treats her gently and respectfully. She finds in him a person who belongs to the earth, not to the unreachable sky. He can fix what is broken and has specific and definite answers to questions. She feels attracted to him, as he stands for everything physical, unlike her husband, who is “a dreamer,” always engrossed in thoughts.

Mrs. Ames is finally able to escape from her state of subjugation when she decides to go down into the sewer with the plumber. Finally, she finds hope and love in her life. So, we see that hope is another important theme of the story.

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As with most stories, there isn't only a single theme that is present in "The Astronomer's Wife." One potential theme to explore is marriage. In this particular story, the marriage theme is not the "happily ever after" marriage theme that readers are fed from an early age. Instead, readers see a broken and emotionless marriage that exists between Mr. and Mrs. Ames. Mr. Ames's love is his work, and he doesn't share that intellectual passion with his wife. Consequently, Mrs. Ames feels lonely and confined in the marriage.

There is another theme that shows the contrast between body and mind and/or the concrete vs. abstract. This theme is shown symbolically through the characters Mr. Ames and the plumber. The text says that Mr. Ames is always looking up or going up, and Mrs. Ames is shocked to hear the concept of a man moving down.

"Perhaps Mr. Ames," he said rather bitterly, "would like to come down with me and have a look around?"

"Down?" said Mrs. Ames in wonder.

Mrs. Ames eventually realizes that her husband's "up" is intellectually based. He's always looking up into the heavens and is consumed with astronomically impossible concepts and ideas. The plumber, on the other hand, is much more logical, concrete, and black and white in his interpretations of problems and what needs to be done to fix them. He solves concrete problems with his hands. He is a man that gets his hands dirty with real, everyday problems. Mrs. Ames realizes this and tells readers her thoughts on the theme.

Her husband was the mind, this other man the meat, of all mankind.

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This is the story of wife waking up one morning and realizing that she is unhappy.  It is about the true meaning of marriage, but it is also about the true meaning of life.  Although her husband is "there" for her physically, he is not emotionally supportive.   They do not have a real connection and do not understand one another.  In marriage, a partnership and a friendship should be the central focus - these two have neither.

But as she realizes this, and watches the plumber working "with" the world and not just in it, she realizes that she needs to have the same relationship with the world around her.  She needs to feel that she is really a part of something, contributing and receiving.  Both in her marriage and in her life as a whole.  It can't all be about intellectual experience - it has to be about physical experience and interaction as well.

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