Themes and Meanings
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.