The temptation is powerful to compare The Doctor’s Wife to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857): The protagonists of both novels are married to provincial doctors, have convulsively passionate affairs with younger lovers, and engage in the subterfuges and stratagems that adulterous relationships necessitate. Yet the differences between the heroines are important: Emma Bovary was bored and unhappy in her incompatible marriage long before she encountered Rodolphe and Léon; Moore’s Sheila is seemingly satisfied to be married to Dr. Kevin Redden and looks forward to a second honeymoon, when they plan to revisit Villefranche in the French Riviera.
Sheila’s overworked husband is unable to join her for medical reasons, however, and when she visits her good friend Peg in Paris, she soon finds herself involved, emotionally and, in a few days, sexually, with a wholesome, handsome, charming American graduate student, Tom Lowry, who, at twenty-six, is eleven years her junior. It turns out that Kevin is rigid, anti-intellectual, unadventurous, unimaginative, and just plain unable to understand her. Moore links Dr. Redden with his native Belfast: bleak, rainy, repressive, bitter, bombed, and barricaded. Villefranche stands, in stark contrast, for a lover’s paradise: sunny, sexual, self-indulgent, beautiful, uncomplicated, a world away from the blight of Ireland. Tom follows Sheila there, she discourages her husband from joining her, and soon she and Tom are joyously united.
Kevin Redden’s suspicions darken to irrational rage as he finally confronts his candid wife in her hotel room and ends up raping her. Their marriage is over, but Sheila decides not to accompany the adoring Tom to the United States. She is a person of moral integrity who feels, in a Jamesian mode of moral renunciation, that she must not derive personal profit from her decision to abandon her husband. Moore dramatizes Sheila’s psychological crisis in spiritual terms: She has attained a state of grace during the Villefranche episode, but, according to her Catholic outlook, she must enter purgatory to expiate her venial sins. She chooses an uncertain new life in London, where she can shed her past yet continue her penance for having betrayed both her husband and her lover. Moore, with his sober artistry, has created in Sheila Redden a heroine of a depth, intensity, and subtlety rare in contemporary fiction.