Role Reversal: Jane Smiley’s “Age of Grief” (novella)

Role Reversal for a Female Author:
Jane Smiley’s
Age of Grief (Novella)

Jane Smiley’s novella Age of Grief in the short story collection of the same name is an excellent story. A middle-aged, highly successful couple with two children go through the ravages of an affair — by the wife, as told from the husband’s point of view. What interests me the most about Smiley’s writing technique is why she chose to write this story from the male’s character’s point of view, especially because she is a woman author, and whether she was successful/convincing or not as a female author writing as a male, and why.
It is fair to say, perhaps for a while longer, that a story about an affair in a marriage is not new; but the story of an affair initiated by the wife is still a little like “man bites dog,” still strange enough to get attention and be of (more) interest. Men are virtually expected to be unfaithful; women, especially mothers, are NOT expected to stray — to grossly oversimplify and state the stereotype assessment. So to buck the stereotype, Smiley had to establish two things: First, give us a female character strong enough to initiate an affair convincingly. Second, give us a male character weak enough to allow the affair to start, but strong enough to carry the story, to express and process the impact of the affair on him, their marriage, their lives. It is a delicate balancing act indeed. How do you make the same character weak and strong?
Smiley does a commendable job of setting up the major conflicts of the story in the opening paragraph, and choosing a believable profession for her main characters: (p. 121)
Dana was the only woman in our freshman dental class, one of two that year in the whole dental school. The next year things changed, and a fifth of them were women. , so maybe Professor Perl, who taught freshman biochemistry, didn’t persist in his habit of turning to the only women in class and saying, “Miss McManus, did you understand that?” assuming that if Dana got it, so had everyone else (male). In fact, Dana majored in biochemistry, and so her predictable nod of understanding was a betrayal to us all, and our class got the reputation among the faculty of being especially poor in biochemistry, a statistical anomaly, guys flunking out who would have passed any other year. Of course, Perl never blamed himself.

There are many things going on in this opening paragraph. It starts with Dana McManus, the “only woman,” giving her classmates hell. This shows the reader a couple things: how Dana is an exceptional woman (one of the first, the few to enter dentistry), and how she can be problematic to her supposed male superiors (Professor Perl, her classmates). Right away Smiley is breaking down stereotypes, setting us up for the “man bites dog” scenario we mentioned earlier. We get hit again with prejudice from Professor Perl, assuming if the woman “got it,” the men must have too. And we get hit again later on — Dana causes a “statistical anomaly, guys flunking out who would have passed any other year.” The major marriage affair theme is also foreshadowed in this paragraph (Dana’s actions were “a betrayal to us all”).
Also, interestingly, a secondary theme having to do with the stereotypical male is introduced and challenged: “Our class got the reputation of being especially poor in biochemistry, a statistical anomoly” and “Of course, Perl never blamed himself.” The male “victim” of an affair is often considered dull or stupid or weak; or like Perl, clueless or egotistical, ie “never blaming himself.” With her challenge of the stereotypes of dentistry, dental school, and this couple’s marriage by extension, Smiley is putting us on notice that the normal stereotypes don’t apply in her story.
Our first impression of Dana and Dave is of two opposites: (p. 122)
Dana was terrifically enthusiastic about dental school, or maybe the word is “defiant.” When she came into the lecture hall every day she would pause and look around the room, at all the guys, daring them to dismiss her, daring them, in fact, to have any thoughts about her at all. To me, dental school seemed more like a very large meal that I had to eat all by myself. The dishes were arrayed before me, and so I took my spoon and went at it as deliberately as possible, chewing up biochemistry and physiology, then fixed prosthodontics and operative dentistry, then periodontics and anesthesia and pain control.

A little later, though, Smiley shows us that there is more to Dave than first meets the eye: (p. 123-124)
I did well in dental school, but it seemed to me that I deserved more drama in my life, especially after I quit the building crew I had worked on every summer since I was sixteen. I quit the crew because I was making $4 an hour and one day nearly crushed my left hand trying to lift a bunch of loose two-by-fours. It hurt, but even before I felt the pain (your neurons, if you’re tall, take a while) I remembered the exact cost of my first year of dental school, which was $8,792.38. A lot of hours at $4 an hour.
I took on Dana. I felt about her the way she felt about dental school. I dared her to dismiss me, and I was determined to scare the pants off her. I took the front basket off my bike, and then I would make her sit on the handlebars at midnight while we coasted down the longest, steepest street in town. We did it over and over, eight nights in a row once. I figured the more likely outcome, death, was cheaper in the end than just wrecking my hands. Besides, it was like falling in love with Dana. I couldn’t stop doing it and I was afraid she could.
After that we’d go back to her place and make love until the adrenaline in our systems had broken down. Sometimes that was a long time. But we were up at six, fresh and sexy, Dana pumped up for the daily challenge of crushing the dental school between her two fists like a beer can, and me for the daily challenge of Dana. Now we have three daughters. We strap them in the car and jerk the belts to test them. One of us walks the oldest ones to school every day, although the distance is two blocks. The oldest, Lizzie, would be floored by the knowledge that Dana and I haven’t always crept fearfully from potential accident to potential accident the way we do now.

I quoted these extensive paragraphs to show that Smiley talks in “guy talk” to make her male character believable. Not only is this character strong enough to take on and co-exist with Dana, he talks like a guy. The “$4 an hour” conversation and logic is pure male; so is the first year dental school bill, ie $8,792.38, right down to the penny. Most women probably wouldn’t know what the first year bill was exactly, or perhaps even what their hourly wage is, let alone having figured out the number of hours that it would take to pay the first year tuition (I’m a little surprised that that number, 2198.095 hours, isn’t also included for character development!). It is a not-so-subtle character difference that Smiley exploits here. Continue the numbers game with the bike stunt, and again the male logic — he did it to (literally) “scare the pants off her.” If this isn’t the male persona, I don’t know what is. And of course he talks about making love, although again the male numbers game could have been sustained for even greater convincing. Would Dana describe her dental school experience as “crushing the dental school between her two fists like a beer can”? I doubt it. Would Dana describe the major events of their daily life with the girls as testing the car-seat straps and walking Lizzie to school and “creeping fearfully”? To me these are not only great examples of the male perspective of reality, ie “guy talk,” but also indicative of what happens to some males when they become a father. Great contrast not only to Dana but also to Dave’s former self. And through much of it, the merriment of male humor, too.
Of course Smiley also gives us some ominous foreshadowing here. Some straightforward, some humorous and some ironic. Consider Dave wishing for “more drama” in his life. Consider the bike’s being pulled by gravity, a natural force, like the natural force of love both holding their family together (Dana, Dave and girls) and pulling them apart (Dana and her lover’s love). Consider the references to death preferred over pain and crushing. Consider the “fearful creeping around” as later Dave tries to avoid any chance that Dana will talk to him about her affair when he has reasons to suspect one. Like a guy, he acts and feels that if they don’t talk about it, it can’t be happening — or at least he doesn’t have to admit it is happening, has been confirmed, by fact and another witness. He is flat out scared to talk about it, and can stay in denial. Note the scene at the summer house where he avoids Dana, even hides in the dark when she comes home late.
The sustained inner “guy talk” of Dave’s throughout Age of Grief that makes his character not only believable but one you grow to care deeply about (as you do Dana, too, which is a tribute to Smiley). Two other elements help make Age of Grief believable. Without them Dave would risk being too maternal and/or too introspective for a guy. I’m referring to the two incidents involving the other male characters in Age of Grief.
The first element is almost an “aside” reference/character that could be easily missed: (p. 122)
Dentists on television never have the people coming in like the man who came to me today. His teeth were hurting him over the weekend, and so he went out to his toolbox and found a pliers and began to pull them all out, with only some whiskey to kill the pain. Pulling teeth takes a lot of strength and a certain finesse, one of which the man had and the other of which he lacked. What drove him into my office today, after fifteen years away from the dentist, was twenty-four broken teeth, some in fragments below the gum line, some merely smashed around the crown. Teeth are important. Eskimo cultures used to abandon their old folks in the snow when their teeth went, no matter how good their health was otherwise. People in our culture have a lot of privileges. One of them is having no teeth.
Besides the Freudian implications here (eeeoowww), Smiley conveys to us again the matter-of-fact reckoning of “guy-speak,” but also the idea that Dave is a free man with lots of privilege, one of which is to simply walk away from Dana, with or without the family, and keep going on his own (“having no teeth”). He wants Dana, but he doesn’t need her to survive. We know early on that Dave is very much aware of this option, and that it is a factor in his own male reasoning.
The second element is a male character that saves the” Dave” male character and therefore the novella, in my opinion: The reluctant patient, Mr. Slater. Slater too walks into Dave’s office, but only because his wife, who had just kicked him out of the house, sent him there. Slater is the opposite of the Dave we’ve seen so far: sloppy clothes, talkative, crude. In other words, a real man’s man. The image/impression of Slater stays with Dave, so much so that his character takes Dave over at dinner and leads him to swear and yell and put one girl to bed as punishment and take off and drive to figure things out. Dave finally sees Dana and his girls realistically, objectively, even opens up verbally and threatens to kill her. Through Slater, Dave connects with his inner man, if you will, and with this connection comes to two critical revelations for the plot: First, Dana’s lover has refused her. Second, Dana needs to control herself and take responsibility for her actions — in short, Dana’s little affair problem, as much as it affects him and his life, is not Dave’s fault or his to fix. To me this is not only the turning point of the novella, but also the “fire in the belly” Dave had been lacking previously, the fire that ultimately proves his maleness and validity as a character. It also balances out the maternal side of Dave, without which the dedication and stamina he shows during the flu epidemic in their home might not have been possible or believable. The writing in the exchanges of the “Slater Era” is poignant and rough and quick and brilliant, a great and needed contrast to what has come before. See pages 169-177.

Just for the hell of it, and because so much emphasis is put on “biochemistry” in the opening paragraph, I looked biochemistry up in the dictionary: “1: Chemistry that deals with the chemical compounds and processes occurring in organisms; 2: the chemical characteristics and reactions of a particular living system or biological substance .” (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary). In dental school, biochemistry is about alloys used for fillings and glues et al. In The Age of Grief, Smiley is exploring the organism of marriage, and in this case the “particular living system” that is the marriage of Dana and Dave, two dentists with children struck by love for each other then love for another man. This makes even more sense when we know that Dana is a biochemistry major, and that Dave had to study biochemistry for his dental degree and be shown up, betrayed, embarrassed in front of his peers and the faculty of the dental school in biochemistry, by Dana.
Understanding the biochemistry metaphor also helped me make better sense of the ending of Age of Grief: (p. 213)
She was sitting at the dining room table. I sat down across from her, and when she looked at me, I said, “Until last night I still thought I might be misreading the signals.”
She shook her head.
“Well, are you leaving or staying?”
“Staying.”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded.
I said, “Let’s not talk about it for a while, okay?”
She nodded. And we looked at each other. It was two thirty.
The big girls would be home in forty minutes.
Shall I say that I welcomed my wife back with great sadness, more sadness than I had felt at any other time? It seems to me that marriage is a small container, after all, barely large enough to hold some children. Two inner lives, two lifelong meditations of whatever complexity, burst out of it and out of it, cracking it, deforming it. Or maybe it is not a thing at all, nothing, something not present. I don’t know, but I can’t help thinking about it.

The story doesn’t end where the affair plot line ends — it goes on. It goes on for a rather clinical description of marriage, marriage in general as opposed to the marriage of Dana and Dave. Smiley describes marriage in scientific language: “a small container… of..complexity, bursting, cracking, deforming.” She also uses one telling repetition: “ …burst out of it and out of it,” as if the natural state of marriage is a constant bursting at the seams for most individuals, i.e., marriage is an Unnatural state of affairs that needs constant attention and maintenance to stay contained, like a gaseous element. Yet people keep getting married, and try to make it work even if they don’t have all the answers: “I don’t know, but I can’t help thinking about it,” Dave tells us. Marriage is both scientific and personal, both objective and subjective. There are no easy answers.
Such is marriage. Such is the human condition. Would the story have been as impressive and memorable if told from the wife’s point of view of the husband’s affair? Not hardly. Such are Jane Smiley’s characters and her wonderful story, Age of Grief.

Smiley, Jane. The age of grief: a novella and short stories. Anchor Books, Random House: New York. 1987.

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