Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1284

"The Other Woman" may resonate markedly in the minds of some sensitive readers because it represents many different forms of expression in conveying the physical and mental experiences of the bride-groom-turned-husband. To begin, it is an interesting and curious example of the reverse tall tale. In the conventional tall tale pattern, the native speaker or narrator, an insider, offers a curious, far-fetched account of a very unusual creature, situation, or condition, to a credulous stranger, an outsider. In Anderson's story the insider seems to be the naif who cannot understand what he himself is talking about. He seems quite confused as we get his account, he contradicts himself, and at one point he is quoted as saying, "I am afraid I muddle this matter in trying to tell it." His audience (the outsider to whom he told his story, and who records his story) seems shrewd enough to appreciate the man's confusion about which woman he really loves and craves. He claims to love his wife but does not sleep with her, and instead thinks of the other woman as a vicarious sex-and-love object. Thus the tall tale, which usually requires a fool or an unwise, unknowing person to serve as a foil for the speaker, is given a special meaning in this story. Anderson's speaker clearly does not know what to make of his own account of an incompatible, perhaps unbelievable, pair of deep emotional attachments to two different women. As indicated above, Anderson had written his publisher that in "The Other Woman" he tried to show the French writers he knew their damn technique [sic] because he put in this story their intrigue, spirit, and bad little boy stuff. Possibly he did not know what other stuff was also getting into the story through his own secret life (i.e., his subconscious) when he projected himself into the character of a man emotionally tied to two women, neither of whom he slept with any longer.

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Another important aspect of "The Other Woman" that Anderson, knowingly or unknowingly, reveals has to do with socioeconomic class distinctions and divisions. A number of possible bases for the man's being drawn to the woman have been given above, but there are other bases that may justifiably be suggested. One of them is the fact of her being relatively poor compared with the bachelor who keeps a personal servant on the premises, wins the hand of a young woman from a wealthy, socially prominent family, and is himself moving upward into the ranks of government service. Though Anderson does not describe actual poverty in relation to the other woman, the reader can gather, from the fact that she lived with her husband above the tobacco shop that her socio-economic status is far below that of her one-night lover. One is tempted to provide a sub-title for the story: "The Gentleman and the Lower-Class Woman." If the lower-class designation seems a bit peremptory in her case, lower middle class might be substituted, but the gap between these two one-nighters would still be huge.

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If any further evidence is needed of the essential difference in their worlds, besides the facts of her husband's operating a little tobacco shop and newsstand and their living above that shop, this additional piece of evidence can be presented: The man's being able to seek her out in the shop when the husband apparently was not present and to directly proposition her with immediate success suggests something that is of great importance. As a mere regular customer for the morning paper he could take gross liberties with her that an upper-class woman would be unlikely to allow in a man known only by facial recognition. The woman might have been flattered by his notice of her and his upfront sexual advances, crude as they appear in the text. In any event, his loving her and leaving her and his not having to face any recriminations or threats on that account might well be interpreted as signs of her tacit recognition of inferior status. She is clearly shown to be beneath the man, and in effect to be a kind of victim of social discrimination. That fine figure and social climber, whatever his protestations to his confidant about such matters as "'having had the most notable experience of [his] life,'" with her, took advantage of the married woman and used her. He loved her and left her, in Anderson's little social drama with economic overtones and wound up at the end having it all, except what he really wanted. However, she seems to have been the one who paid the price.

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Among the other forms that may be used to describe Anderson's story with its indeterminate ending are the following: confessional, anecdotal tale, exercise in self-deception, and narrative within a narrative. As the text makes clear, the man's tale was told to the person who ostensibly wrote down the highly personal account. Most of the story consists of direct quotation from the subject himself, but this nearly dominant first-person point of view is set off by the secondary narrator's two-and-a-half page introduction of the subject, beginning with the subject's keynote statement and the secondary narrator's response. "I am in love with my wife, he said—a superfluous remark, as I had not questioned his attachment to the woman he had married. We walked for ten minutes and then he said it again. I turned to look at him. He began to talk . . ."

There is something significant about Anderson's enclosed-narrative technique that may escape the notice of a casual reader. If this literary form is to have any deeper significance than what is provided by the mere storyline and its packaging (i.e., the way it is written and presented), a purpose, or at least some advantage, must be sought for its use. In the present case the following explanation is offered. While the reader has only the given text to deal with, it would not be amiss to speculate on what is left out, what is being concealed for whatever reason, by the man who is at the center of the action. It is all too evident that when he protests too much about how he loves his wife, the reader has to consider everything else he says, too. But there are many other matters that are conveniently omitted, such as his domestic relations after marriage and why he sleeps apart from his wife (though she keeps her bedroom door open). Then there is the matter of the outside narrator, who refers to the man in question as "my friend." What else does the former know about his friend that would throw light on this pre-marital adulterer's behavior as it is displayed in the story?

All of which is to say that on the basis of at least one criterion, "The Other Woman" is a very successful short story. Indeterminate ending or no, the storyline may well take on a life of its own in the mind of a sensitive reader considering the implications of the startling last two paragraphs. In that passage the man lets on that speaking of all these intimate matters has sexed him up so that he will in effect bring the other woman back up in the forefront of his consciousness, enjoy a virtual sexual union with her, while apparently having sex with his wife. After the head-swimming experience, he will open his eyes and see his dear wife, then he will sleep, and awaken feeling once again that he has undergone a most notable life experience. But that other woman, the only one who ever made possible for him a most notable life experience, will be completely gone.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 234

1. Given the husband's insecurity, hesitancy, tentativeness, etc., why do you think he made such a strong point of his love for his wife? (Reread the opening of the story.)

2. Why does the main character make so much of the contrast between light and dark, the mind when asleep and the mind in the waking state?

3. Do you find something childish or just plain naive in the husband's whole attitude toward his own feelings about "his" two women?

4. In what ways might this 1920 story be considered expressive of life and domestic relations today?

5. Why do you think Anderson failed to give his characters names? Do you think they are supposed to represent allegorical figures, simple stereotypes, or something else? What does this namelessness tell you about the storyline and the author's attitude toward his characters?

6. As you consider "The Other Woman" and its implications, what, if anything, in your view is really lacking in Anderson's presentation, other than names of the characters?

7. In your opinion, should the story, in order to be more effective, have been made longer, with an expanded cast of characters, a detailed setting (time and place), dialogue, plot twists, and other desirable elements?

8. Can you justify or defend the bridegroom's behavior just before the wedding, i.e., his having sex with another woman because he just felt like it? Assume either a plaintiff's or a defender's position, and present your case.

Social Concerns

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Sherwood Anderson's "The Other Woman," like certain other short fictions of the early twentieth century, may appear quite simple, even superficial, to twenty-first century readers. But the complexity and resonant quality of this anecdotal confession resulting from an adulterous affair may become more manifest when it is considered within its cultural and temporal context. Given this wider perspective, the story's fidelity to the vagaries of human nature, when the central figure is held back by an internal force (inhibition) as well as by an external force (editorial censorship or, at the least, prudery), makes it all the more appealing and meaningful to the thoughtful reader of this later time. In typical Anderson fashion, the soliloquizing central figure is inquiring into the nature of his own mental world as well as the greater world of humankind: what is going on here, and how can such things happen?

Before considering the social issues involved in the unnamed central figure's experiences as given, there is a special feature of the story that makes it more intriguing and problematic than it would be otherwise. Anderson, in explaining how the original storyline came about, seems to have indulged in writerly gimmickry; that is, concocting his tale of a man emotionally torn between two women in a way that would demonstrate his literary agility, i.e., as a stunt. Judy Jo Small, in A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson (1994), discusses the composition of the story by Anderson as he commented on it in a letter to Ben Huebsch, his publisher. (The letter is included in Charles E. Modlin's 1984 edition, Sherwood Anderson: Selected Letters.) Anderson considered it "decidedly French" as far as its intrigue and its spirit, written somewhat tongue-in-cheek, "bad little boy stuff," its aim (in a way) having been "to show the mutts" he knew "their damn technique." This special feature, the author's deliberate creation of a story situation and a narrative manner or style to go with it—almost as though this were a creative writing exercise—might seem to lessen the story's value by shattering its self-contained world with the implication of "What if we had this situation and those characters in it?" Anderson makes it difficult for the reader to suspend disbelief. But how else can the reader benefit from the story if not by being induced to believe in the elements of the story and not simply in hypotheticals? One way was suggested above. The story seems faithful to the vagaries of human nature when the central figure or protagonist is inhibited and also constrained by an enforced code of etiquette and decorum.

Anderson offers us a fairly familiar scene. The leading figure in this little social entanglement is a man who has allowed himself to become involved amorously with two women, at least one of whom—his wife, in this case—must never be allowed to discover his inconstancy. Unlike many men in such an awkward and risky situation, however, this individual does not really know his own mind and is gripped by emotional forces he cannot control. He would like to keep both women, but he is so confused about how to do this and about which woman is more important to him that in the end he simply appears feckless and foolish. But Anderson's bridegroom character is a more complicated figure than his one-night stand, the act of premarital infidelity that is so crucial to the story, might lead a reader to think. There is real psychological, as well as social, significance in his telling a confidant, the narrator of this story, that his one and only sexual experience with someone else's wife was "the most notable experience of [his] life."

The first social concern of importance here has to do with the position of either of the two women in the story and ironically unites them in a way that has been preserved in folklore but in these more enlightened times seems crudely insensitive. According to the archaic view of women that is reflected in "The Other Woman," they may be reduced in one way or another to objects of convenience for men or objects for inspection and evaluation by men. Thus they often become trivialized under male scrutiny, however friendly it may appear. The two women referred to above are the socially prominent young bride-to-be in this mini-drama and the very ordinary "other woman"—the wife of a tobacconist who runs a small cigar store and newsstand and whom the prospective bridegroom summons to his house for sex on the very eve of his wedding. The women both have the same purpose in the story: to serve the same man unquestioningly; to just give him what he wants. To mark a difference, however, his "intended" is lovingly, passionately expressive on paper, as a token of what she will give later, while the "other" is merely a silent service provider for less than two hours before he goes to call on his fiancee during the crucial night before his wedding. Ironically, it is the physicality of this "other," who is so common in appearance and possibly ten years his senior, that has so actively engaged the man's imagination and his passion.

The other social concern in Anderson's story has to do with the fragility and vulnerability of the marriage tie. Although this is a very special case—the "infidelity" or faithless act having taken place shortly before the marriage ceremony—apparently the husband-to-be, so caught up in his exciting marriage plans and expectations, was already taking his forthcoming change of status lightly and might well have been considered a bad marriage risk. Yet on the surface of things, it might seem that no (social) harm was done because of his one- night-stand, which not only did not prevent his marriage from taking place but (to hear him comment on the subject) seems to have had a beneficial effect on it. A more considered view of the matter reveals two important points. First, his having entered into marriage with dirty hands, metaphorically speaking, calls in question his seriousness and dependability in general. Second, at a very important point in his life (gaining honors and recognition for his government appointment and his poetry), he did more than "stepping out" on his "intended." He induced a middle-aged woman to forsake her husband and come to his apartment to have sex with him as if the husband was of no importance and had no prior marital rights vis-a-vis his own wife.

Literary Precedents

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The most relevant feature of "The Other Woman" having to do with literary precedents is the technique referred to earlier, the enclosed narrative. That is, a story with a loose outer frame which has the potential for a story or which constitutes an actual story. Broadly, the term includes one or more of the following features of a loose outer frame of reference: the recorder of the events, the commentator on the events, or the compiler of the data on the events. A somewhat different definition of the framing or enclosure technique, applied to the short story, is given in The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 4th ed., by J. A. Cuddon and rev. by C. E. Preston (1999): "A frame story is one which contains either another tale, a story within a story, or a series of stories."

The nineteenth-century writers produced a number of short fictions that illustrate what has been said here about the enclosed narrative as a literary form. Four examples may be mentioned, drawn from the sizable pool of stories. Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Wakefield" (1835) is a sketch suggested to the imaginative narrator by "a story, told as truth," in an old newspaper or magazine about a man in London who walked out on his wife. He moved to a nearby lodging but managed to keep an eye on her during an absence of almost twenty years, then returned to their original dwelling and resumed married life with her. There are actually three story or quasi-story patterns in "Wakefield." One consists of comments on what happened to the wife during this interval, another consists of comments on what happened to the husband, and the third gives the reader what Hawthorne the narrator makes of this journalistic account.

Edward Everett Hale's patriotic classic "The Man Without a Country " (1863) concerns the circumstances surrounding the treason trial in 1807 of an army lieutenant, Philip Nolan, who had been involved in the Aaron Burr conspiracy to promote a secessionist movement in the newly formed republic. A cogent summary of this artfully constructed fiction with the ring of truth is given in John R. Adams's Edward Everett Hale (1977). This "officer convicted of treason angrily expresses the hope that he may never again hear the name of his native country . . . . As his penalty, his wish is granted by the court; he spends the remainder of his life at sea, is transferred from one government ship to another, and is tortured by incessantly intensifying remorse." Frederic Ingham, a shipboard officer who knew Nolan (Ingham is a fictional alter ego for Hale) makes himself the reader's tour guide to the life and hard times of the unhappy outcast. Ingham explains how he became involved in the Nolan story in the first place, provides historical commentary on Nolan's part in the Burr affair, and includes relevant correspondence from ships' officers on Nolan, one of which letters fittingly covers Nolan's last hours and words.
Mark Twain's melancholy account of the buckshot-laden amphibian, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865), is nestled within a droll outer narrative. That covering involves the narrator, who goes in search of information about a friend of his friend—Leonidas W. Smiley—supposedly to be found in a rundown mining camp. Winding up in Angel's Camp, California (even today the sidewalks have commemorative frog inlays, and a local building has a plaque marking where Twain heard the original account and made it his own), he there encounters an old codger named Simon Wheeler. Answering the narrator's inquiry about the Smiley character, Wheeler spins a long, rambling yarn about a gambler he knew named Jim Smiley and his odd assortment of animals that he trained for betting purposes. Eventually Wheeler relates the memorable tale of the nasty trick played on Jim Smiley's jumping frog by the unscrupulous stranger who filled it with buckshot while Smiley was away getting the stranger a frog to bet on. After that small gem of a tale, Twain concludes his outer narrative as follows: When Wheeler is called away briefly but tells the narrator to wait for his immediate return, the narrator begins to take off. Then Wheeler gets back quickly and tries to restrain him, physically and with a new yarn (about a one-eyed cow), but nothing avails, and he makes his escape.

H. C. Bunner's "A Letter and a Paragraph" (1884) contains, in epistolary form, a journalist's account, to his friend, fellow reporter, and former roommate, of the purported last twenty-two years of his life, up to his fortieth birthday. The account traces the career of the letter writer from the drab poverty and hardship of his cub reporter days (which began when he was eighteen), through his presumed success and inexpressibly happy marriage and fatherhood, down to the wonderful present. This is the main story, but not the end of the letter. The secondary story enclosing the main one is given in the rest of the letter and in the paragraph following—a news item from the New York Herald, November 18, 1883. The secondary story in fact involves the switch ending, the reversal of intention. As he confesses near the end of the letter, he has heart disease and, the doctor has told him, he may die at any time. More, he is still in the old shabby room he once shared with his journalist friend, and ten years have not elapsed since the latter left their lodging but rather a mere two days. He has burnt his writings and, as the letter makes clear, is filled with thoughts of death and of what kind of memory of himself he is leaving his old friend. "What a wild dream have I dreamt in all this emptiness! . . . I have tried to show you that I have led by your side a happier and dearer life of hope and aspiration than the one you saw." But the paragraph, with his obituary, is a switch from the prior switch. It reveals that the dead man had actually attained some success as a journalist (for some years he had been on the staff of his original paper, the Record) and as a creative writer. As to certain other details, he "was about thirty years of age, and unmarried."

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