The Literary Roots Behind The Widow’s Season
Dead husbands might not seem like a promising topic for a novel---too creepy, too morbid, too, well… weird. But in my graduate school days, when I was researching widows in English literature (think Jane Austen’s novels and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath) the husbands proved just as intriguing as their widows. In fact, I got hooked on plays from the 1600s where husbands fake their deaths in order to spy on their wives.
Moliere, Chapman, Behn, Steele (not exactly household names today) all created male characters who wanted to preview their deaths, to see how their wives would behave. Inevitably the women behaved badly, taking new lovers and preparing to hand over the family property, until their husbands stepped from the wings, saying Aha! These plays reveal a lot about men’s anxiety over money and women’s sexuality, but what I liked most was the voyeurism. It made me think of ghosts in literature who watch their widows, like the dead king in Hamlet, who is just as angry about his widow’s sex life as his own murder.
From there I started reading conduct books and educational treatises from the Renaissance forward, which told widows to imagine that their husbands were watching—kind of like Santa Claus, “he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake!” Or kind of like God. Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote the feminist classic A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, said that good widows imagine that the eyes of the husband are joined with the Eye of God in one big patriarchal gaze. Bad widows, according to Wollstonecraft, forget their husbands, neglect their children and fall prey to fortune hunters.
Then came my first attempt at writing a novel, and I knew that I wanted to use these ideas from my research. But should I create a husband who faked his death, or a ghost who watches his widow, or just a widow with a grieving mind who imagines things that aren’t there? And then I thought: why not combine all three? Why not try, for three hundred pages, to sustain the ambiguity between life and death, imagination and reality? When people are grieving, a lot of those lines get blurred anyway.
And so, over the course of many years, I wrote The Widow’s Season, a novel where the husband’s status is constantly in question. In fact, in my original draft I never answered the question. The husband just walked away at the end, and I let readers decide for themselves whether he was dead or alive all that time. I enjoy ambiguity, but lots of readers and editors don’t. My agent couldn’t sell a book that didn’t have closure. She tried for a year. The current ending is not a violation of my vision, because it shares my own understanding of what was happening with the husband. Still, I would have been fine with an open ending, because I don’t think a writer has to share everything. Sometimes the reader can use her or his own imagination.
I’m curious about what readers out there think. Do you like ambiguous endings, that don’t solve the puzzle, or do you prefer closure? I’d love to hear more people’s thoughts on that.