Astronomer's Wife

by Kay Boyle
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 307

Kay Boyle is especially well known for her intense psychological portrayals of people who long for meaning and love in a disordered world. In that vein, “Astronomer’s Wife” is concerned with the relationships between men and women and the effects of emotional manipulation and control. The important men in Mrs. Ames’s life have apparently all been cold and domineering. She assumes that all men are like her husband, who makes her feel that men are strong, intelligent, and important, while women are weak, incompetent, and irritating. When Mr. Ames makes his only utterance, he reaffirms his idea that his wife is spiritually incapable of understanding anything more complicated than a stopped-up drain. This insult has a double effect: It undermines Mrs. Ames’s already-shaky self-confidence, thus reinforcing her dependence on him, and it announces her general inadequacy to the plumber and the servant.

For obvious reasons, Mrs. Ames prefers her husband’s usual ominous silence to his actually speaking to her. His silence keeps distance between them and reminds her constantly of his superiority. Her mental and emotional state, as a result, is characterized by confusion, frustration, loneliness, and ineffectualness. The plumber, a man of sensitivity, holds out a metaphoric hand to rescue her. At first, he is brusque in discussing the plumbing problem; however, after hearing Mr. Ames’s humiliating remark to his wife, he feels compassion for Mrs. Ames and anger toward her husband. Initially, when the plumber looks directly at Mrs. Ames, it disturbs her. Gradually, however, she grows more aware of him as a man and realizes that he is entirely different from her husband. When she consciously decides to go down into the drains with the plumber, she frees herself from the bondage that her husband has imposed on her. Love, hope, and meaning have come back into her life.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756

An ‘‘epiphany’’ is a sudden moment of clarity, often brought on by emotional stimuli or by very minor events. In ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife,’’ Katherine Ames has an epiphany about her husband and what he has done to her. She wakes up on this day much as she does every other day—alone. The prose of the story gives a sense of deadness, as the author’s style is quite flat in the early part of the story. This corresponds with the state of emotional deadness in which the reader finds Mrs. Ames. In the course of the story, though, she begins thinking in specific terms about the way her husband relates to her. Although he is not cruel or abusive in any way, he is not fulfilling her emotional needs. He is distant, and, as befits his profession, he has his head in the clouds. He is always thinking of abstract things, of faraway stars and planets. The little details of daily life do not interest him, and he generally delegates responsibility for any of those details to his wife.

Through her encounter with the plumber, Mrs. Ames begins to take more notice of those very details of daily life that escape her husband. She takes note of the physicality of the plumber, of his vital engagement with the physical world, and this causes her to think even more about how dissatis- fied she is with her husband. Years of suppressed emotions begin to well up and overflow, much like the floodwaters that caused the plumber to be called in the first place. In the end, she symbolically joins with the plumber in going underground, going as far away from stargazing husband as possible.

Symbolism: Body/Mind
The conflict between the physical nature of humans and their ability to think and reason has always been a concern of writers, artists, and philosophers. If it is thinking that defines humanity, must humans entirely devote themselves to rationality and intellectual inquiry? In ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife,’’ the astronomer represents the mind. Like the brain, the astronomer is located on top of the symbolic body of the villa, refusing to descend. He prefers to look above him, into the heavens. He is ‘‘a man of other things, a dreamer.’’ He does not even use his body, remaining in bed for the duration of the story, and the reader learns nothing about his physical being.

The wife is caught in the middle. She has adapted to her husband’s way of life, and she also relies primarily on her head: she is a problemsolver. She also respects the power of the mind, which ‘‘made steep and sprightly flights, pursued illusion, took foothold in the nameless things that cannot pass between thumb and forefinger.’’ However, in the course of solving these problems, her emotions and the physical world come into play. In this story, the emotions are a bridge between the physical, sensual world and the mental world. As the story progresses, Mrs. Ames continues to think about her husband and resents his life of the mind.

The plumber is a blunt representation of the physical world. Where the astronomer works with his eyes and head, the plumber’s relation to the world is physical: he works with his hands. Mrs. Ames thinks to herself that ‘‘her husband was the mind, this other man the meat, of all mankind.’’ Mrs. Ames also notices physical details about him, such as his hair, his flesh, and even the veins on his hands. He has little respect for the astronomer’s refusal to engage with the physical world, and at the end of the story he symbolically becomes part of that physical world when he descends, accompanied by the astronomer’s wife, into the underground. Mrs. Ames explains that, by contrast, ‘‘Mr. Ames would never go down there alive. He likes going up.’’

Ascent and descent are treated ironically here. Generally, ascent is a going toward God, an improvement, a positive thing. Descent symbolizes evil, falling, negativity. Yet, by linking the ascent/ descent symbol with the mind/body duality, Boyle reverses their usual values. In this story, going down, engaging with the physical world, is a good thing. She even suggests that readers should not be so afraid of death, for death is just part of their nature as physical beings. Going up is the mark of a man who wishes he were not part of the world, and who has crippled his marriage and emotionally scarred his wife because of this desire.

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