But the theme is no sooner announced than set aside; indeed, when Oates comes back to the idea of “betraying” her husband, it is in the much narrower context of disclosing to the reader secrets about Ray Smith’s family and upbringing. But she does this, she explains, because “there is no purpose to a memoir, if it isn’t honest. As there is no purpose to a declaration of love, if it isn’t honest.” Her book ends with a chapter headed “The Widow’s Handbook,” which reads in its entirety:
Of the widow’s countless death-duties there is really just one that matters: on the anniversary of her husband’s death the widow should think I kept myself alive.
But if she is also thinking “I might be getting married in a few weeks’ time,” does this not change the nature of that statement? This isn’t a moral comment: Oates may quote Marianne Moore’s line that “the cure for loneliness is solitude,” but many people need to be married, and therefore, at times, remarried. However, some readers will feel they have a good case for breach of narrative promise. And what about all those perennials she planted?
When Dr. Johnson wrote “The Proper Means of Regulating Sorrow” he was not yet widowed. That event was to occur two years later, when he was forty-three. Twenty-eight years afterward, in a letter to Dr. Thomas Lawrence, whose wife had recently died, Johnson wrote:
He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the only companion with whom he has shared much good or evil; and with whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace the past or anticipate the future. The continuity of being is lacerated; the settled course of sentiment and action is stopped; and life stands suspended and motionless, till it is driven by external causes into a new channel. But the time of suspense is dreadful.
‘A Widow’s Story’ May 26, 2011