The New Yorker: “Thirteen Wives” by Steven Millhauser

CV1_TNY_05_27_13Juan.inddMay 27, 2013: “Thirteen Wives” by Steven Millhauser

I’m not sure I get this story, which you can read in its entirety for free. Go do that now: “Thirteen Wives.”

Here’s the gist of it. The speaker says he lives in a sprawling house and each of his thirteen wives has her own room. He then proceeds to describe each of the wives—listed by number, not name—and his relationship with her. All the wives are quite different; in fact, they seem to cover the universe of possible personality types, as if his wives represent all women. In contrast, we know very little about the personality of the man, except as he compares himself to each of the wives. But he is not every man—he is one man. Who, then, are the women?

As I read through all the different wives, I wondered if the narrator weren’t speaking really of just one woman, with moods or a split personality. (It’s not clear how they could play cards in small groups, as the narrator says they do, if that were the case.) It might be that the wives represent the same wife at different ages. In fact, wife number 10 is sick, and wife number 12 is a “negative woman,” as if she were really an absence, rather than a presence. And number 13 is his memory of women. He says, “ The incessant changefulness of my thirteenth wife may, of course, arise from something deceptive in her nature, as if she’s continually casting up new images in an effort to evade responsibility for any one of them,” which suggests that she is all the previous wives put together.

Millhauser is known for such slightly off-kilter, perplexing stories. As of this writing, there’s no Q&A with the author to help us with this one. So, what’s your take? Do you find this a sexist story?

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  1. Not sure what you mean by ‘getting’ the story. I have not read his work for awhile. Story was interesting and well-observed. The mechanics of the interactions with the wives did not bother me and I was happy that I had been set up right from the start not to expect a consistent reality. Having said that I read the wives as a list that could be one or separate or some percentage inbetween. The story conceit is to resent that to the reader to consider. One could say — that the story presents a list of characteristics we are familiar with, or ought to be familiar with in the contemporary first world that has the role of the wife idealised in a particular way, but what makes it a story is the writing. I think the story is speaking to a certain audience and if the reader isn’t you then it might simply be a list?

  2. You don’t GET it? It’s the sweetest damn thing I ever read. I get all teary just remembering it. And “her”.

    There’s only one WOMAN in it.

  3. I also found myself perplexed after reading this story. At first I thought it was about a single woman with multiple personalities. But as I read on (especially numbers 10-13), I began to think of John Cheever’s short story, “The Swimmer.” While the narrative suggests it’s being told in a vacuum, I really do think it was the evolution of a man’s perception of his wife from the beginning of their relationship to the end.

  4. I thought, at first, that maybe this man was delusional and was living in a fantasy world in which he escaped to a different type of woman depending on his mood. Upon further consideration I think I agree with the above comments in that this is a man’s recollection of the stages he shared with his wife who eventually passed on. What I loved the most about this story was that it sure made me think 🙂

  5. I loved this story so much. I have two ideas about it. The first, that it is 13 facets of one woman. The second, that it is the many ways the narrator has loved the opposite sex. Number 13, with it’s unfiltered appreciation for just about every woman, makes me lean towards the second idea. But certainly, specific things the narrator recalls about individual women further his general adoration. And I love the idea of the flickers and bumps of all the women he has lived with, admired, noticed, loved filling the old, many-roomed house of his memory.

  6. Sexist? I think you missed the point. The story is a paean to women and the depth of marriage, expressed conceptually in an original way.

    1. I didn’t say it was sexist, Peggy. I asked if anyone thought it was, because it’s clear that there are multiple interpretations. So, I think you missed MY point.

  7. It was a wonderful read, beautifully written, so much so that I stopped trying to “get” it.

    But, I’m pretty sure Wife # 9 was a cat or a dog.

  8. Beautiful story celebrating the depth of a single relationship over nine years. It was as if he had not ‘thirteen marriages but, rather, a man with a single marriage, composed of thirteen wives.’

    I don’t think she dies at the end. Wife 10 is sickly but 11 is a program manager-type and quite spry climbing ladders and replacing cracked ceilings.

    Marriage is hard. He’s found one possible solution that works for him. He as thirteen ‘separate’ wives and hence, doesn’t get bored with any one of them. Must be one amazing lady!!

  9. I immediately thought the title was a nod to Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a Blackbird. It is a complex poem I have struggled with through multiple readings but it is mostly about point-of-view…the limitations of looking at an entity from only one perspective.

  10. I disagree completely that this story talks about one relationship — I think it’s an exploration of all of the different kinds of romances that one can have, even (for example, the last two) those that are purely in one’s own head.

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