By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Wife’s Story’ is a short story with a twist. Published in 1982, it’s a short tale whose narrator, at the end of the story, turns out to be different from what we have been led to believe. One of Ursula Le Guin’s best-known tales, ‘The Wife’s Story’ is story narrated by a wife, who turns out to be a wolf who is ‘married’ to a werewolf.
What is the meaning of Le Guin’s story? Before we come to the analysis, here’s a brief summary of the story’s plot.
‘The Wife’s Story’: plot summary
The story is narrated by a wife who describes how she met her husband. When she first meets him, he is laid-back and she gets on with him, so she brings him home with her, where she lives with her sister – their parents having moved south and left them the house the year before. The sister moves out, too, when she sees how close the two of them are becoming.
They have children together and for a while, the narrator is the happiest she has ever been. Her husband leads the singing at Lodge Meetings, and he was a hard worker, always pulling his weight. But then things start to go wrong. The narrator blames the moon. It is also suggested that her husband inherited something from his father: something that was in his ‘blood’.
The husband starts to change, sneaking off to hunt all day, his voice different when he spoke. Then their daughter became suddenly fearful of him, as did the narrator. One day, when the narrator wakes up and finds that her husband is not next to her, she goes outside and witnesses him change from a wolf into a man. He then attacks their house and their daughter, but the whole pack of wolves descends on him and chases him. The narrator sees her daughter sink her teeth into the man who had been her father, killing him. The narrator says she wishes her husband would come back, the way he had been before, but all that remains is the dead body of the man.
‘The Wife’s Story’: analysis
‘The Wife’s Story’ has a shocking twist ending, although Le Guin plants several important clues earlier in the story whose significance, upon rereading it, becomes fully apparent. The ‘singing’ at Lodge Meetings which the husband excels at is actually the wailing of the wolves as their howl at the moon; the ‘Lodge Meeting’ is really the pack coming together to hunt. The narrator’s reference to the moon as the source of her husband’s problem also makes sense when we bear in mind the close link between lycanthropy (werewolves) and the influence of the (full) moon.
But just as clever are the red herrings (as they turn out to be) which Le Guin also dangles throughout the story: the husband’s absences, for instance, are meant to make us think he is conducting an affair with another woman, but in fact his secret is even darker than this. Terms like ‘hunting trip’ are going to lead us to assume that the husband is a man with a gun rather than a wolf on the scent.
And for a wolf, the revelation that one’s husband is actually a human – or part-human, or human at least some of the time – is going to provoke distrust, fear, and unease, given the fact that wolves represent wilderness compared against man’s domestic habits (famously, man domesticated the dog, but the wolf remained free).
‘The Wife’s Story’ exploits our assumptions about the characters speaking to us (or being described to us) in order to make a point about how we view both ourselves and other species. Man is othered, defamiliarised, perhaps even dehumanised: viewed through the eyes of the lupine narrator, the man who was her husband in a sense becomes the animal, the outlier, and alien amidst the pack.
We might imagine what the story would be like if it had been written the other way, and the narrator had been human, with the shock at the end being the revelation that her human husband had transformed into a wolf which was then killed by the neighbours (and, perhaps, stabbed through the throat by the human daughter). By inverting this relationship between man and animal, ‘The Wife’s Story’ performs its own act of narrative lycanthropy, transforming us, man, the reader, into the wild animal amidst the ordered and hierarchical society of the wolves.
Such narrative trickery, then, carries a serious point. It’s also something Le Guin was fond of doing: in an interview she pointed out that in her fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea she didn’t reveal that most of the novel’s main characters had darker skin, because she wanted her (predominantly white) readers to get to know the characters and then realise they were, in a sense, inhabiting a different colour ‘skin’. Similarly, in getting to know the narrator of ‘The Wife’s Story’ as she tells us about her life (and note the canny use of a deliberately vernacular style of speaking: the wolf speaks in ordinary colloquial language, complete with American slang and ‘improper’ grammar, to make her more ‘real’ and ‘normal’), we are more tempted to view the wolves with compassion and the man with fear, as we experience what they experienced.
In the last analysis, then, Le Guin’s narrator in ‘The Wife’s Story’ may be a wolf in woman’s clothing, as it were, but this is more than just a piece of literary sleight-of-hand. We might also analyse Le Guin’s story from a feminist perspective, with the violent husband who suddenly changes into a menacing threat inviting us to view such male violence from the perspective of the female character.