Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Steven Millhauser’s “Thirteen Wives” was originally published in the May 27, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Steven Millhauser’s “Thirteen wives” is a mix of fiction, fantasy, advice, and memoir, and it’s magnificent. In thirteen parts, ostensibly told by a man with thirteen wives, the story weaves a vision of being a husband in a union that is as various as the weather and as real, all told in a voice that is funny and touching by turns.
In this particular spring, with its terrible storms and human havoc, Millhauser’s affection for life and wife is moving. These thirteen wives might be a wish; they might be an amalgam of wives he’s had; they might be his one wife all wrapped up in thirteen ribbons. I like to think they are a way of talking about one wife, because I can imagine one woman being so multiple, one marriage being so various. In fact, in the first story, Millhauser hints that these thirteen women are one woman when he says:
Unhappy that I’ve had such thoughts, and uncertain what to do, I seek out the one person who’s sure to understand; when I seize her in my arms and look into her eyes, I see the same melancholy, the same longing for something unknown; and as I burst into a dark, uneasy laugh, I hear, all over the room, like the cries of many animals, the sound of her own troubling laughter.
That he hears the cries of many animals in his wife’s laughter prepares us to think of each of the thirteen wives as facets of one person. If I had a son getting married this spring, I’d give him this story. I love the description Millhauser makes of the wife who makes of her marriage two people who are partners in love, each one making the other the other’s favorite breakfast. Each possible “wife” is different from the last: one is devoted, one is cranky, one is a dream of a handy-woman, and some are impossible, like the artist and the woman who sleeps with a sword in the bed to protect her vow of . . . what? The fellow telling us the story wonders if it is that she wants him to “love her fiercely enough to smash through arbitrary prohibition.” And then there is the mysterious ninth wife, the one from whom he hears “a dim whirring,” she being the one who stares past him.
I am so touched by the wife who is ill and her husband’s care of her, but also touched by his sense of all the women who interest him who will never be his wife, and I am touched by the twelfth wife, the one who “is the sum of all that did not happen between us.” That paragraph is masterful, coming as it does after the brisk, efficient wife who can repair anything. No, the twelfth wife is a “negative,” she is the tender moments that might have been, the moments they, or he, or she, lacked the energy to create. Wryly, he says, “All lovers envy us.” Envy that could-have-been life.
I notice that Millhauser leaves aside money, children, religion and politics, the grit in every marriage. I’m just as glad he did. It’s spring. The lilacs are in bloom, and it’s fitting to honor the season and marriage itself with hopefulness, even bittersweet hopefulness, given that these wives have a tendency to be both driven and self-absorbed. No wonder he thinks several times of what might have been — things never shared that could have been, women seen who might have been, in other circumstances, known. He wonders if the story will “prove useful to others.” I leave that question to the rest of you, though.
He makes me wonder, however, if in the one husband I do have, are there actually thirteen? If I tried to tell that tale, for the fun of it, I would only hope I could be so gentle as Millhauser as I wove my tale. That tone is hard to sustain, by turns wry, revealing, funny, desperately honest, and forgiving. Well. That’s what I was searching for: that there is a treasuring voice here. In these hard times, that voice is a tonic.
As I read this, I had many of the same thoughts as Betsy: are these thirteen wives really just the various aspects of his one wife? And, oh, how nicely he conveys his affection for each and every one, even those who might be more trying — indeed, he needs those as much as he needs the ones who are solicitous to his needs in the extreme.
When he begins talking about each wife, the narrator says:
Never have I considered myself to be a man with thirteen marriages but, rather, a man with a single marriage, composed of thirteen wives. Whether this solution to the difficult problem of marriage is one that will prove useful to others, or whether my approach will add nothing to the sum of human knowledge, is not for me to say. I say only that, speaking strictly for myself, there could have been no other way.
He then begins to tell us about each of his wives, and in the process we remember something we already knew: Millhauser is our premier Romantic. His ability to capture the emotional yearning in poetic and exhaustive descriptions is unrivaled these days.
Each wife is very different from the others. His first is his equal in all things, so much so that if he trips she falls. They are there 100% for each other, both giving and accepting at all times:
Another time, when things weren’t going well with me, I woke in the night and feared she might be suicidally depressed; when I rushed into the hall, I nearly collided with her, hurrying toward me with her arms held wide and a look of rescue in her eyes.
This description of his first wive has many surprises (as I said, here and elsewhere, Millhauser keeps digging when most of us would stop), as do the descriptions of the remaining twelve wives. His second wife is the supreme comforter; he goes to her when “I am feeling hopeless about my life, when my hands hang from my sleeves, when, catching sight of myself in a plate-glass window, I turn violently away, but not before I turn violently away.” When he is in “a more robust mood” he goes to his third wife, “who never spoils me.” His love for his fourth wife is perfect, which causes him some concern, fearing that this will make him take it for granted. He admits he desires some imperfection:
Why should I sometimes dream of complaining bitterly, shouting at the top of my voice, accusing her of ruining my life? Why should I long to provoke, in the clear eyes of my fourth wife, the first shadow of disappointment and pain?
He and his eighth wife sleep with a sword between them. “If I love her, I must not touch her; to do so would be to violate a vow that she herself exacted.” In this section, Millhauser’s narrator examines the nature of love and passion; the consummation is only an inch away, an inch that immeasurably increases his desire for her. Is this a test to see if he really loves her? Certainly, but how does he pass it? If he violates the vow, won’t he be showing that he cares nothing for the vow, wants her only physically? And what if the vow is a pretext set up to test just how much he does want her; if he really wants her, he will break the vow. It’s a conundrum he cannot break, so he knows things will stay this way between them — unless by accepting they will stay this way he lets down his guard and breaks the vow. Such are the ever-deepening circles of Millhauser.
This is high Romanticism, complete with a fevered wife the narrator is already mourning, kissing her in hopes he’ll catch the same fever. There’s even a wife who is a “negative woman,” meaning “she is the sum of all that did not happen between us.”
Remarkably, Millhauser uses these Romantic tropes to fresh and tender effect. We are convinced that the narrator loves each and every one of these wives, or each and every one of these aspects in his single wife, including all of the potentialities that have yet to be fulfilled and may never be fulfilled.