Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Good Wife

Montaigne so often shows himself to be a man before his time, a man whose thought and ideas very often fit in with today's concerns. But he makes an exception with "On Three Good Wives" where is seems the only good wife is a dead wife. Montaigne begins by stating "The touchstone of a good marriage, the real test, concerns the time that the association lasts, and whether it has been constant--sweet, loyal and pleasant." Nothing really controversial in that. But he follows it with his observation that "In our century wives usually reserve their displays of duty and vehement love for when they have lost their husbands." Montaigne does not like that. He wants wives to display their duty and love while their husbands are alive. He notices that quite a few widows, though giving the appearance of grieving, are not broken up about their husband's departure and in fact their color and health even improve! Obviously Montaigne was a bit nonplussed by this, but I'll bet there is not a woman out there who hasn't already figured it out. Maybe it isn't so common these days when women have more control over their lives, but during Montaigne's time there were probably quite a few unhappy wives who found themselves happily liberated from a union with a man they never cared about. Of course Montaigne, being a man who unthinkingly accepted the services of his wife, would not be able to fathom what her life might be like and whether or not she was happy. So it is he comes to tell the stories of three good wives. The first is an unnamed woman from the lower classes who discovered her husband was ill and would only suffer painfully until his disease finally killed him. So she suggested that in order to avoid the drawn out suffering, he should kill himself. But being the good wife that she was, she said that she would kill herself too because she couldn't bear to live without him. They tied themselves together so they could die in each other's arms, and jumped into the sea. How romantic. The second good wife is Arria whose husband was captured in battle by supporters of the Emperor Claudius. She followed her husband to Rome where she hoped he would be released or where he would honorably kill himself. Time passed and neither thing happened. She began talking of killing herself since she knew her husband was as good as dead. In the end, she stabbed herself in front of her husband thereby giving him the strength to take up the knife she had used and deal himself a mortal blow, saving his honor. And finally, the third good wife was a high-born Roman woman named Paulina. She was young and married to Seneca who was not so young. They were happy three years before Nero sent an official to tell Seneca that he was sentenced to death. At that time you were given the opportunity to kill yourself before the state killed you. Seneca, being the fine Stoic philosopher that he was, was ready. But first he gave a long speech because philosophers always have followers hanging about, listening to their every word. Everyone was moved, even his wife, who declared that she loved him so much she could not abandon him even in his death and that she would die with him. So together, while all of Seneca's groupies were watching, they slit their wrists. But Nero found out about what they were up to. He was concerned that Paulina's death would incite her family and their connections to do something against him, so he had his men barge in, bind up her wounds and not let her die. Against her own wishes she lived many years longer without her beloved Seneca. I'd think though that if she were really good she would have killed herself later when no one was looking. A good husband does not have the same obligations as a wife. He is not expected to kill himself for her honor. Seneca does mention that if a man loves his wife he should do what he can to prolong his life "to please her." A very loving thing to do, especially if he expects her to kill herself when he dies. I am so glad this is the 21st century. While there are still issues of inequality between men and women that need to be resolved, at least for the most part we are not expected to die along with our husbands. I love my Bookman dearly, but that would be taking things a little too far. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On the Most Excellent of Men"