Mavis Gallant’s “The Moslem Wife”

So many of Mavis Gallant’s characters inhabit between spaces.

Netta, too.

Which is strange, because so many of Mavis Gallant’s other itinerant women are staying in hotels, but Netta is running one.

And she is just as between as the rest of them.

Once she said yes and, then, later, she said yes again: this story unfolds between yeses.

In “Poor Franzi”, guests gathered on a crowded terrace in the Austrian Alps, and a young woman wonders: “What will happen to me if I marry him….”

In “The Moslem Wife”, Netta marries Jack, and she warns him not to be so “pally” with the female guests at the hotel, but the warning is for naught.

In “Going Ashore”, the young daughter stays in a hotel with her mother on shore and reflects upon the many Uncles she has known, the many relationships her mother has had with men through the years. In “New Year’s Eve”, Amabel stays in a hotel, apart from the Plummers, who have a perfect relationship in her view (from that distance in the hotel).

In “The Moslem Wife”, Netta tells herself to make a different choice, but then follows the familiar pattern of forgiveness and acceptance: “What could I do…but let my arm be held, my steps be guided?”

In “A Day like Any Other”, Frau Stengel, the children’s governess, lives on the attic floor of a hotel, where she is surrounded by stony satin cushions, crocheted mats and pictures of kittens cut from magazines.

Netta and Jack keep the hotel in “The Moslem Wife” in beautiful condition, and there are many mentions of the changing light and reflections behind the meticulously painted and repaired green shutters over the windows (until the war, when everything changes).

“A Revised Guide to Paris” pokes gentle fun at the tourists who gather with the other members of their charter group to watch dubbed versions of “Gunsmoke” rather than explore the city.

The guests in “The Moslem Wife” are all too friendly, all too involved with their host and hostess (and Jack is not the only one in whom visitors take an interest, although Netta seems to decline the attentions paid to her).

In “Thieves and Rascals”, sixteen-year-old Joyce sneaks off from St. Hilda’s school to spend a weekend with a young man in Albany and in “My Heart Is Broken”, Jeanne meets a man in the hotel while Vern is working in the bush.

Infidelity is a consistent theme in “The Moslem Wife”: “Her happiness had always been great enough to allow for despair. She knew that some people thought Jack was happy and she was not.”

“In the Tunnel” displays a wonderful observation of prostitutes in front of a hotel with their “faces like dead letters” and sisters Louise and Sylvie Tate live in a hotel in “The Cost of Living”. In both of these stories, young women are disappointed by their relationships, tired and hungry, feeling more alone than they expected to feel.

Which is much as Netta has found the state of marriage in “The Moslem Wife”. But even after she lives alone in the wartime years, she welcomes Jack’s return: “Memory is what ought to prevent you from buying a dog after the first dog dies, but it never does. It should at least keep you from saying yes twice to the same person.”

Ironically, as much as this story focuses on the decades-long relationship between Netta and Jack, “The Moslem Wife” is as much about wartime conflict as marital conflict.

Mavis Gallant aligns the observations of suffering, the occupation and the hunger and the deaths and the camps and the murders, with the private and petty trials and losses of individuals:

“Neither the vanquished in their flight nor their victors returning to pick over rubble seemed half so vindictive as a tragic girl who had disliked her governess.”

Maybe Netta is saying yes this time simply because she survived.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second story in From the Fifteenth District. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.
Next story: “The Remission”.
Next collection: Home Truths, beginning Feburary 5th with “Thank You for the Lovely Tea”.

The Four Seasons / The Moslem Wife / The Remission NOV14 / The Latehomecomer NOV21 / Baum, Gabriel, 1935 — NOV28 / From the Fifteenth District DEC5/ Potter DEC12 / His Mother DEC19 / Irina DEC26



  1. Naomi November 21, 2018 at 2:20 pm - Reply

    I’m kinda glad I’m way behind – I get to read all these other comments!

    First, I’m going to admit that I don’t get what “the Moslem wife” means – what makes her like a Moslem wife?
    Second, I was also struck by the comment about the women taking photographs of themselves because they would never be so thin again. I didn’t think thin was a big thing back then!

    Everything else… Do you think Jack was unfaithful, even before he left? I got the feeling he was, but it wasn’t actually stated that he was, so I’m not sure why I felt that way. I think it was a good thing that Jack went away and came back (and that Netta took him back) – I thought their marriage was worth another try. Not that it would have been easy for Netta in those in between years (although, she implies at some point that she’s happy to be rid of him, doesn’t she? – oh dear… things are already getting fuzzy).

    A few lines I liked: “Her happiness had always been great enough to allow for despair.”
    “She was surprised at how neat marriage was, at how many years and feelings could be folded and put under a lid.”
    “I’ve discovered something else… it is that sex and love have nothing in common. Only a coincidence, sometimes. You think the coincidence will go on and so you get married. I suppose that is what men are born knowing and women learn by accident.”

    One more thing… living in a hotel would be pretty cool. And writing about living in one allows for so many possibilities!

    • Buried In Print November 25, 2018 at 4:55 pm - Reply

      Well, I think it’s connected to the fact that you didn’t feel sure that Jack was unfaithful; I felt sure that he WAS being unfaithful, and so I assumed that the reference was to the fact that some men in that faith have more than one wife, implying that Jack wasn’t devoted to Netta. And that his infidelity was so obvious, even to other guests/community members, that the idea of her needing to share him with other women began to seem like part of her identity.

      Even so, I can’t think off-hand of specific observations or comments that she makes about Jack which makes me think this. Actually, I feel like it’s more about what she doesn’t say. About what is left unsaid. And how some things seem to happen without adequate explanation (for instance, her bursting into tears on one occasion) and how she seems to remain silent and uncomfortably so, on occasion. There is so much tension in the story overall.

      I love those quotes, and I think I missed noting the one about “under a lid”, which is perfect. And I have a thing about hotel stories. There is one by Ali Smith and one by Christina Stead, along with an Ian McEwan which I discovered later: maybe we need to start a bookclub, The Literary Hotels Club? 🙂

      • Naomi November 26, 2018 at 9:48 am - Reply

        When you explain it, it all sounds so obvious!
        I wonder how many books/stories we could find for that book club? Half the fun would be in making the list. 🙂

        • Buried In Print November 26, 2018 at 1:32 pm - Reply

          I’m not sure that it is obvious or whether it’s just my assumptions and my reading of it. Maybe Mel will jump in! I am starting to feel as though Gallant’s stories are so polished that they gleam, every word counting (but not necessarily in the way it seems it will count). This collection is making me feel that way more than the others.
          And, yes, the list would be the mostest funnest part!

          • Naomi November 30, 2018 at 12:14 pm - Reply

            I’m so glad you sent me a link to that interview. I didn’t realize the stories in this collection were chronological. Maybe just because I haven’t gotten very far yet!

            • Buried In Print December 4, 2018 at 10:10 am

              It’s not obvious even as you read along. I loved learning that there is no fifteenth district!

  2. Andrew Blackman November 9, 2018 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    Wow, I love your comprehensiveness! I once planned to review each one of Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories, but I didn’t get very far. I checked the project page, though, and you are making good headway through Mavis Gallant. I think it’s great to give a short story its own separate review—so often, they just get brief mentions in a post about the whole collection. I like how you draw links between the characters in different stories here as well.

    • Buried In Print November 9, 2018 at 8:19 pm - Reply

      Thanks for stopping by: I’m curious, how did you find your way here? It’s not too late to resume your Borges project! He’s someone whose work I’ve only dabbled in but I know it’s worthwhile, and like Gallant’s work, his rewards rereading too. Sometimes it’s hard to write a review of a single story but with Gallant’s I have a hard time keeping it short – there are so many layers that I want to comment on, so many phrases that are striking! I’m approaching the halfway mark with her and the project will last another two years, reading four collections each year; I’ve already read through all of Alice Munro’s stories, following much the same approach, a story each week with a few weeks between collections. If you decide to give Borges another try, let me know.

      • Andrew Blackman November 14, 2018 at 7:00 am - Reply

        Ah, that’s a good question! I think it was from the German Literature Month reading event, where I followed a link to The Reading Life, where I think you’d commented on a post, and I clicked through from there. Anyway, I’ve added you to my RSS reader, so next time it’ll be easier 🙂

        As for Borges, I would love to go back to that project. Honestly, though, I don’t think it will happen any time soon. Right now, I’m travelling full time around Europe, doing loads of freelance writing and editing work to pay the bills, and trying to fit in my own creative writing too. Blogging gets shunted down the list, unfortunately. But perhaps one day my situation will have changed, and I’ll return to it. Thanks for the reminder and the encouragement!

        • Buried In Print November 14, 2018 at 4:51 pm - Reply

          Thanks for tracing the path: that makes sense. I see a lot of links coming in from Mel’s site and if you are travelling that makes even more sense with his emphasis on international reading! I read the article about the shift you made into freelancing and I’m curious about grittier details on that score, as I am shifting out of copy-oriented ad-world work into narrative-driven freelancing/writing as well, but from a stationary perspective (in Toronto, Canada). It’s hard to prioritize a number of writing projects, especially with economics in the mix: I understand completely. For me, the Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro stories are actually part of a kind of writing analysis (like a homegrown MFA of sorts) rather than blogging, because it forces me to read the stories more carefully than I would if I wasn’t planning to write about them, even casually here. But if the initial reason for reading Borges was more pleasure than work, I can see where he would simply have to get in line and wait his turn!

  3. The Reading Life November 7, 2018 at 11:26 pm - Reply

    Ok how can I not love a long short story which begins with the narrator saying in the opening paragraph that she grew up in a hotel in Paris owned by her family where Katherine Mansfield went to die. I was hooked totally by this and read on nonstop for sixty minutes marveling at what a great story this was. The narrator starts out as a teenage girl talking about what it was like to live in a hotel owned by family knowing you would one day own the hotel. Gallant beautifully and compellingly brings the narrator to life. She marries her first cousin, a very interesting man. People said of him “he could have made something of himself if he had not wasted so much time reading”. Ouch! The novel begins say 1925 and ends just a few years after World War Two. Very little is said about the German invasion of Paris but you can feel the immense pain there presence in Paris and the hotel inflicts. The portrayal of the marriage is incredibly intelligent and subtle. The man is not easy to understand, he left France for America before the Germans arrives and he comes back when the war was over.

    I really do not want to spoil to much of the plot for you. If you enjoy a perfectly crafted short story magnificently set in Paris about people who love the novels of Henry Green (the narrator was so happy when she got a post war Care Package that included one of his novels) then I think you will love “The Moslem Wife”, and you will have to read it to find out why that is the title!

    • Buried In Print November 8, 2018 at 10:35 am - Reply

      I know: I just knew you would love that bit, the link with Mansfield. And I thought the selection of books was so interesting (it reminded me of the packages that the owner of the bookshop in Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel sends to the man who lives outside the town and has such an amazing library, also of the exchanges between Helen Hanff and the 84 Charing Cross Road bookshop staff). There is so much to take in with the scenes of the two as children, with the immediate and intense reaction between them: something chemical, base, intuitive. I wonder how different (if any) things would have been for them if Jack had not had the opportunity to go to North America. One of the details about the war years that stood out to me was the comment that many women had their photographs taken because they would never be so thin again: what an unusual way to consider the privilege inherent in their position (that they could afford the photography) by pairing it with vanity (whether or not that was the motivation).

      [Edited to add a link to Mel’s post on this story, here.]

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