Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2013
The story, though deceptively simple on the surface as indicated above, is fascinating and complex enough to raise a number of interesting issues that seem to call for clarification in the course of one's reading of the text: (1) Why was the bridegroom attracted so intensely to the tobacconist's wife? (2) Why was she so willing to come to a stranger's lodging on such short notice for a sexual rendezvous? (3) Given the social and domestic constraints of that period, why did her husband apparently not object to, and prevent, her going out alone at night for an unexplained reason to a stranger's lodging? (4) Is Anderson's story of "The Other Woman" merely a literary stunt that he whimsically thought up to show off his creative writing skill? (If that were the case, the provisional response might be that it would be difficult if not actually pointless to take the story seriously enough to analyze it, because a frivolous piece of writing is far more likely to evoke frivolous commentary and interpretation than is a serious literary text.)
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The matter of sexual attraction, on which "The Other Woman" is predicated, deserves more than a simple-answer dismissal such as "There's no accounting for taste." Anderson had already been married and divorced and married for the second time when he wrote that piece of short fiction; he would go on to divorce his second wife, marry and divorce his third, and take a fourth wife. Anderson was clearly susceptible to a range of feminine charms and enticements. However, something more than "love of women" and inconstancy of affection on the part of the author seems to have been at play in the shaping of Anderson's story. Perhaps it was some peculiar masculine susceptibility, possibly another example of the "one touch of nature [that] makes the whole world kin" (to adapt Shakespeare's line from Troilus and Cressida [III, iii, line 175]), a suggestive expression that O. Henry made use of in at least two of his short stories. Anderson has an interesting way of making his point about a feminine feature that men may find beguiling.
As the bridegroom (new husband, rather) tells his story of pre-marital infatuation and sex on the sly to the narrator, he recalls what it was like to see "the other woman" and feel an intense emotional charge before he propositioned her. As indicated earlier, he regarded her appearance as ordinary, and she seemed to be some years older than he, but she had become something of an obsession with him. So affected did he become, that "his hand began trembling, his voice was reduced almost to a thick whisper," and he urged her to come to his apartment that night. A note on what Anderson himself might have been responding to imaginatively, as he was writing that line, is provided by Marchette Chute in her biographical study, Two Gentle Men: The Lives of George Herbert and Robert Herrick (1959). Ben Jonson (the famous actor-dramatist-poet), she points out, "had once written a song for one of his plays in which he praised the art of 'sweet neglect' in a woman's attire. Herrick borrowed both the idea and the metre, and the result is his own brilliantly original lyric, 'Delight in Disorder.'"
It is important to recognize that this particular matter of "delight in disorder" represents only a part of a larger set of factors involving the impromptu bonding of two strangers whose mutual readiness calls for a broader and more cogent explanation than the story itself provides. That explanation should attempt to throw light on a wide range of other heterosexual bonds, including those in which the woman's clothes are not in disarray and the man is "turned on" by different stimuli that might be ignored by otherwise responsive males. The "bottom line" here, the common denominator, is (in our popular idiom) "good chemistry" between the man and the woman, however ill-suited to each other they might appear to an outsider. Lest the reader consider the term too glib for a description and therefore meaningless, perhaps like the alternative term "good vibes" [vibrations], there is something to be said on that point.
It would seem difficult to make the case that waves or wave-like rhythms from one human body (i.e., brain waves, pulse beat, circadian rhythm, etc.) might harmonize so closely with those from another body in close proximity as to cause an actual physical attraction (circadian rhythm a possible exception). Using vibrations as a metaphor for human attraction evokes the great unifying orderly pattern, in physics, of the electromagnetic spectrum, with its enormous range of periodicity. "All electromagnetic waves," the science writer and editor John L. Chapman wrote (in his July 1964 Harper's Magazine article, "The Expanding Spectrum"), derive from "the oscillations or vibrations of atomic particles. The wavelengths of radiations range from hundreds of miles for the longest to about one ten-billionth of a centimeter for the shortest."
But there is some basis for applying the notion of "good chemistry" between, let us say, a fairly close heterosexual couple to a story such as Anderson's "The Other Woman," where so much depends on an unlikely mutual attraction. For the sake of clarity, when we consider the analogy with chemistry, instead of with waves on the electromagnetic spectrum, or body rhythms, there is a ready-made frame of reference, and it goes back to the first decade of the nineteenth century. In 1809 the pre-eminent German dramatist and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published a remarkable philosophical-romantic novel, Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften). In its exploration of relationships—to be more exact, attractions and repulsions—the book brought together the physical and chemical worlds, the social world, and the world of the individual seeking (through some compelling inner force) particular attachments. For this reason Goethe's novel is particularly relevant to this examination of Anderson's story. It enables the reader to consider the tendency of objects, including humans, to be drawn toward other particular objects— similar or dissimilar—sometimes in defiance of reason or logical expectation.
David Constantine, in his Explanatory Notes to the Oxford University Press World's Classics paperback edition of Elective Affinities (1994), which he also translated and edited, states that that expression "was current in science from the late eighteenth century onwards, [and] was given wider currency in its human and emotional sense by Goethe's novel, by the title alone perhaps." Anderson may never have encountered the term, though that does not affect the present discussion. The specific application of "elective affinities" to human relationships, i.e., considering them in terms of chemical bonding, grows out of a discussion involving four characters: Charlotte, Eduard, the Captain, and Ottilie. Goethe's quartet and the recombination potential those characters have (the two couples could change partners) are of course not replicated in Anderson's story. There, the bridegroom first has a sexual bonding with "the other woman" (whose husband remains dormant), then marries his intended, and afterward retains a weak physical bond with his wife as well as a strong psychological bond with his one-night-stand partner. Nevertheless, in Anderson's story, even with a trio instead of a quartet, the particular sexual choices this man and his two women make are sufficiently evocative of the deep forces suggested in Goethe's novel so that they may serve as a basis for our gaining a better understanding of Anderson's deceptively simple anecdotal tale.
Goethe lays out his rationale of elective affinities through the conversation of his principal characters, in Chapter Four of Part One. Following are brief relevant passages from Goethe's novel that seem to have a bearing on "The Other Woman." The Captain answers Charlotte's question about whether their discussion has already gotten to "'relationships and affinities.'" '"We say of those natures which on meeting speedily connect and inter-react that they have an affinity for one another.'" The Captain adds that it may be an extremely remarkable affinity. He gives the example of acids and alkalis, which, though opposed to each other, "'will most decisively'" seek out, take hold of, and modify one another and form, in so doing, '"a new substance together.'" Charlotte remarks that when he speaks '"of these wondrous entities as related they seem to [her] not so much blood relations as related in spirit and in the soul.'" In exactly this manner "'true and important friendships may come about between people: opposing qualities make an intenser union possible.'"
Eduard, asked for his view, says that only through the complicated cases—which he considers more interesting than any others—"'do we realize the degree of affinity and how near, strong, remote, or slight the relations are. Affinities are only really interesting when they bring about separations.'" The Captain offers an example: a piece of limestone put in dilute sulphuric acid will combine with the limestone's calcium to make gypsum. '"A separation and a new combination'" took place, apparently a matter of "elective affinity." Thus, '"one relationship [seems to have been] preferred to another and a choice made for one over the other.'" Charlotte, bothered by their '"playing with analogies,'" asks about the validity of expressions such as "choice" and "elective affinity" in the human context they are considering. She tells them she knows about enough cases wherein '"a close and [seemingly] indissoluble relationship was annulled by the casual arrival of a third party, and one of the pair, previously joined so beautifully, driven out into empty space.'" Eduard replies that as to this matter, '"chemists are much more gallant. They add a fourth party, so that nobody goes without.'" Such cases, the Captain tells them, are the most important and amazing of all, the two pairs of substances being brought together, each substance then leaving its former connection and recombining elsewhere. In that flight from one connection and search for a new one, a person truly tends to detect '"some higher prescription,'" attributing '"to such substances a sort of volition and power to choose and . . . "elective affinities" seems perfectly justified.'"
Once again, it must be pointed out that there is good reason to emphasize these social and chemical processes in Goethe's novel in relation to "The Other Woman," though there are many differences in the two fictions. First, there is a basic connection between the two, what Allan Bloom refers to as the primacy of "the law of love." In his extensive literary examination of that particular ruling passion, Love & Friendship (1993), he writes, "Goethe plays on this theme with great delicacy in Elective Affinities when husband and wife, who are each in love with someone else, make love, or make-believe-love, with their true loves in mind. The child who results from the act resembles the true loves who were imagined during it." Second, the particular nature of the bond, so to speak, between the bridegroom-turned-husband and the other woman has generally been ignored in the critical commentary on the story.
Judy Jo Small, in A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson (1994), states that there has been minimal discussion of the story. The sources she cites and her own commentary deal with matters such as the following: Has the man found happiness through his one-night stand and "a way to endure a celibate marriage" by "repeated fantasizing about" it? Has his inhibited "inner, instinctive life" been released by that one-night stand? Is the story another ironic parable, by Anderson, of human shortcomings? Is the man's wife noble, replete with sentiment? Does the man protest too much that he loves his wife? Does the man in revealing so much about his personal life obtain relief through catharsis? What can be said about the two different narrators in the story? What can be said about the Freudian elements and the ironies in the story? The present essay, instead of taking up any of these abovementioned aspects of the story, is more concerned with the nature of the bonding process affecting the characters and their mysterious inner promptings that cause the unexpected behavior in this deceptively simple tale.