“How to Be an Other Woman” and Stories that Teach Mistrust



There is something to be learned from textbooks.  At the end of a chapter, if you were paying any attention, you will have read something discrete– pieces of information that you can synthesize and summarize into a single declarative: “I read about partial fraction decompositions” or “the life cycle of ferns” or “the Trail of Tears,” and this short and sweet encapsulation feels satisfying to possess.  You can prove you’ve read about something because it is finite in scope as an event or theorem.  But more than once I’ve been stumped by the question “what is it about?” when asked for my favorite book or recommendation to read on a plane, or when just talking about a novel in conversation. What is it about? I can tell you why I like it and think it’s worthwhile, who it’s by and her other works, the themes and the characters and the plot. But was that what it was about, or was it just the matrix in which whatever it was about took shape? Professors and teachers of English assign works of literature for the same purpose that teachers of other disciplines assign textbooks: there is something instructive, something to be gleaned.  So, surely, we must be able to say what we’ve read at the end of a story.  I’m going to illustrate the complexity of addressing this task for a particular piece of writing, “How to be An Other Woman” by Lorrie Moore to show how, unlike textbook writing, literary truths are shaky when the whole meaning of stories in literature can shift in a single phrase.

There are select occasions when assessing the truthfulness of a story is meaningful at all.  Only in the cases of biography or genres where we expect accounts accurate to reality, as in science textbooks or newspaper articles, and in these we are explicitly told as a feature of genre that the portrayals are true. The brunt of the content in these works is statements, which can be externally cross-referenced to verify or debunk.

Creative fiction cannot be assessed in this same sense. Prior to J.L. Austin’s work, the common belief among linguists was that statements could be defined as any utterance that could be proven true or false; Austin in How to Do Things with Words establishes a category of utterance which, although conventionally designated as statements, didn’t in fact have strict boolean values, which he termed “performative” speech acts (6).  Statements such as “I now pronounce you man and wife,” “I order you to stand,” and “I name the child Charles,” can either be “happy” or “unhappy” depending on the “felicity” of the conditions in which they’re uttered; conditions for “felicity” are unique to the utterance, but typically require a speaker imbued with requisite authority (a doctor has not the credentials to marry), and certain appropriate circumstances (one cannot really order someone already standing to stand, nor name a child Charles when the object to be named is a dog) (14).  Performative speech acts are by nature metalinguistic utterances which declare the actions they themselves currently perform.

“How to Be an Other Women” is a story which we can treat as something like a performative speech act. Told in the second person as a series of imperatives, the story is framed as a step-by-step guide on how to be a mistress, but not in generalities.

What weather,” you hear him sigh, faintly British or uppercrust Delaware.

Glance up. Say: “It is fit for neither beast nor vegetable.”

It sounds dumb. It makes no sense.

But it is how you meet.

You the reader are conducted through the story as Charlene, a young woman, college graduate yet menial secretary, who falls in love with and has an affair with a married man. The instructions (authorial? divine?) which form the body of the story are at the same time dealt as they are enacted by “you” (3).  You are reading Madame Bovary on a bus; “Return to your book. Emma is opening her window, thinking of Rouen” (4). The simultaneous declaration of the action and its treatment as ‘having happened’ or ‘happening’ in the story constitutes performative acts; similarly, the “you” of the text represents both you the reader and you Charlene– meaning there can be no boolean value to the question “are you Charlene?” since it is simultaneously false and true. The story is an experience of your life lived in real-time. 

If veracity were key, this story would have no merit because we know the “you” of the text cannot possibly be referencing us, since in our real lives we’re reading the story.  The relationship to the reader is a peculiar one in which the very act of reading enacts a series of imperatives that unfolds the story before you; to read the story makes it true.

In the cases of science or history papers, logical argument and fact are surface-level information. This type of knowledge is what is readily available–the happenstance of an event, the formula of a chemical compound.  While not necessarily easily intelligible, meaning here isn’t veiled from view.  But stories have no obligation to tell you what the truth is explicitly nor implicitly.  Even in the most overt example of parable, where the intention is to clearly illustrate a moral, the meaning of something as digestible as Aesop’s “The Tortoise and The Hare” has been lost. Originally, Hare’s hubris is what lead to his defeat, napping after seeing Slow and Steady (the tortoise) so far behind.  But over the years, the line “Slow and Steady wins the race” has assumed the role of moral, converting “Slow and Steady” from a proper noun to an ascription of virtues.

Because knowledge is coded, each piece throughout a story is not necessarily recognizable by the same reader; Charlene quips that “the unexamined fly is not worth zipping,” a pun which can only be understood if the reader is familiar with Socrates’ “the unexamined life is not worth living” (10). And such knowledge or truths can range from something as frivolous as a pun to the entire meaning of the story.

Our story is replete with references to the insecurity of an “other woman’s” identity.  You “philosophize,” declaring, “you are a mistress… part of a great historical tradition” that normalizes your degradation and even esteems it (16). You “wonder who you are,” “gaz[ing] into the mirror at a face that looks too puffy to be yours,” “then look quickly away, like a woman, some other woman, who is losing her mind” (8, 12).  In defining yourself an “other woman,” your identity is shaped completely by what you aren’t: his wife–the woman.

So when in the penultimate page you discover that all along the woman he convinced you is his wife is actually a mistress herself, it becomes evident that there is no way to know the truth in this story; “Patricia is not his wife. He is separated from his wife; her name is Carrie… Patricia is the woman he lives with” (21).  Whatever sense of identity you felt by having a set category as “other” is now meaningless. Already you were living the lie of a mistress, wherein your very existence is a subject to be hidden and denied.  You are an other woman in an ignominious line of other women.

At the same time, you are confounded by the identity of the man you love.  What little you did know of him, what little he shared of his “dust, eat, bicker” relationship with his so-called wife were lies. He is suddenly remote and foreign, asserting in his defense that what he has “always admired about you is your strength, your independence,” so trite and meaningless a line, a canned phrase that reeks of use and reuse (21). Yet in some ways you are “other” as in exceptional; you know of Patricia while she seems to have no knowledge about you; months later he still “calls you occasionally at the office to ask how you are” (18, 22).  You still answer his calls.  Your relationship and your identity remain ambiguous.

Logician Charles Pierce argued that “pictures alone can never convey the slightest information… it leaves the spectator uncertain whether it is a copy of something actually existing or a mere play of fancy” (7).  We must treat literature like a picture. Because it has no necessary binding to some real world analog, seeing any one word appear in the text means nothing by itself. Each subsequent sentence can complicate or negate something previous. We think we’ve found out how to be an other woman, that “it essentially means to put your shoes on the wrong feet,” that “it is like constantly having a book out from the library” (5). To be a mistress is to be something as awkward and unnatural as misfitted shoes, as out of place as an overdue library book–an error to be righted as soon as he comes to his senses. Being an other woman involves constant paranoia, obsession, and ultimately settlement for whatever scraps you can scrounge; “On the street, all over, you think you see her… Every woman is her. [But] remember what Mrs. Kloosterman told the class in second grade: Just be glad you have legs” (12, 13). But our truths crumble when confronted with an incompatible reality, when our understanding of “other” is revealed to have been erroneous all along, and the tenuous means of coping on which we had come to rely is rendered useless.

The conclusion is a form of twist-ending tantamount to the adventure in “A Wizard of Oz” all being a vivid dream. An abrupt and story-altering end revelation is a common trope in film and literature, including “Shutter Island,” in which events are revealed to have been a ploy to remedy the insane protagonist, or Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil which in the final pages emerges as an allegory for the Holocaust.

So we find that literary truths can be unstable.  While its title has us believe we’ll emerge from the other side having learned, the story sets up our beliefs in order to knock them down. “How to Be an Other Woman” embodies literary instability by turning the truth on its head, leaving us to answer our original query: what was it about? with the reality of finding more questions than answers.

Works Consulted

Aesop. “Story Arts | Aesop’s ABC | The Tortoise and The Hare.” Story Arts | Aesop’s ABC | The Tortoise and The Hare. Story Arts, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962. Print.

Moore, Lorrie. “How to Be an Other Woman.” Self Help. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.  Print.

Peirce, Charles. Peirce Edition Project, ed. 1998. “What is a sign?” and “Of Reasoning in General,” in The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 2. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 4-26.

A Stone’s Throw from Reality


“Sticks and stones may break my bones…

but the words ‘stick’ and ‘stone’ are arbitrary stand-ins for physical entities, so ‘sticks’ and ‘stones’ really can’t hurt me,” may well have once been uttered on the playground by a young Friedrich Nietzsche.  As speakers, as writers, as readers, as people with the capacity for thought, we are conducted through life on the backs of words, and so it is imperative we know just what we’re treading on when we consume and produce language–when we so much as invoke the word “word.”  And if Nietzsche is right, then we’re treading on air.

A nineteenth-century philosopher, Nietzsche would rise to prominence as the curator of polarizing ideologies ranging from morality to epistemology, of which his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” is of interest to any user of language.  Briefly, his argument is such:  All things posses “essence[s]” (Nietzsche 117).  We are concerned primarily with the essences of things, and it is these essences that words attempt to name. Words are “metaphors”–arbitrary fabrications completely irrelevant to the essences of things–which cannot actually come any closer to describing the thing, yet are as close as we can get (Nietzsche 116).  We then attempt to unearth cosmic truths via the flawed words created by us, and so continually deceive ourselves with language that will forever circumscribe the truth.

That is, language categorically bars us from truth, and language’s most atomic unit–a word–can merely serve to offset meaning rather than define.

Perhaps the affront to tangible reality that Nietzsche’s theory puts forth is its trivialization of the senses: What good are they when our perception of the world necessitates a language which obscures and mutates it anyway?  A century after Nietzsche, Valentin Volosinovconceives a theory that similarly asserts the fundamental ambiguity of words, defining a word as that which is “multifarious” (“many-speaking,” from the literal Latin) (72).  A word by nature cannot be static, and must possess multiple meanings; a ‘word’ with one single meaning transcendent of context would indeed cease to be a word, instead acting as a “signal2” akin to the red light of a stoplight indicating a STOP! command, or hearing a particular register of animal cry and instinctually recognizing it as ‘pain.’  A word may only be a word if its very definition is in flux; to utter one is to grasp at water. 

While perhaps self-evident, it is critical to enunciate that reflection, critical thinking, premeditated action, or any sort of interpretation of stimuli is linguistic.  Our most basic and most proximate tool for accessing reality is words, though they be as blunt and imprecise as the rock which clobbers an oyster to get at its delicate flesh.  The very process by which words access reality distorts it indelibly.   

I will describe schematically the fundamental wedge language imposes.  Let A be an entity–something that exists–such as a tangible object or a concept. We can denominate the word assigned to it as A1, since it is not literally A, yet is its closest and most fundamental association. A implies A1 and vice versa. The problem is that, because we are conscious of language’s inherent multifariousness and fallibility as well as our own fallibility as its operators, we have learned through socialization that the linkage between A and A1 is not strict. For instance, suppose we were to predictably and concertedly meet for lunch every other day, and otherwise never run into each other due to distance.  If I were to part by saying, “See you tomorrow,” you would not show up expectantly the next day; that is to say you would not interpret “tomorrow” literally, because you can deduce what I meant, and substituted the correct and appropriate meaning to “tomorrow.”  Not only have you decoupled A (the concept of tomorrow) from A1 “tomorrow,” you have reassigned A1 to B (the day after tomorrow), based on your own assumption.

Not only do words lack inherent meaning or value, but also functional meaning by being so susceptible to alteration via misuse. As linguistic purists, we could obsess over the grammatical genocide of adverbs in colloquialisms (“man I did so bad on that test..”), or the loss of  “fewer” (“there are less pigs than sheep”) and “spat” (“ew, you just spit on me!”) from social vocabulary–but such pedantic anal-retentivity is hardly the point.  Extrapolate the above premise to a world cluttered by words, where we are constantly bombarded by a deluge of advertisements, news, electronic communications, face-to-face conversations, books, etc. where we prioritize efficiency over correctness, and are likely to be completely oblivious to the ramifications of certain linguistic choices, deliberate or not. Apart from the select scholar, who is yet still fallible, there is no language police. Invariably through careless use, words become diluted and adulterated, where A1 can come to mean essentially anything in different contexts. Any nonliteral interpretation can be seen as the degradation of language, and the mortal risk is that the original association between A and A1 can be completely lost (‘nice’ has lost all connotation of its Latin etymology, nescius, meaning “unknowing” or “ignorant”), words can sometimes mean their very antonyms (turn the light off, the alarm went off (on)), producing a nonsensical world. This is frightening, that we are all complicit in the confusion of our best tool to understand the world.

A precedent follows, then, for mistrusting language in an anxious and conspiratorial way, since we as its users have been denied, systemically, the very possibility of meeting the task we have employed language to perform.  One reaction to Nietzsche would be to militantly interpret language at face-value in narrow and strict fashion–to rigorously excise language from all contextual and ideological connotation and so strip it down to its naked germ to come closest to reality.  To do so would be to read apathetically, disengaging ourselves as readers from the equation.  Granted, apathy here is relative–since utter apathy is robotic and therefore inhuman–so apathy to the extent that we may not allow ourselves to be moved emotionally by any particular line, but may still react on the whole. We will take Nabokov’s Lolita to investigate what Nietzsche’s paradigm means in practice.

Under this rule, we can explain Lolita’s acclaim as follows: the text on a literal level follows the narrative of a sexual deviant as he serially preys on an underaged girl. This text appeals to us the readers because it depicts an identifiable real-world phenomenon of which we either partake or do not, where the former enjoys self-recognition (the same comfort of looking into a mirror and indeed seeing oneself), and the latter enjoys the self-aggrandizement of alienating depravity.  Both of these are narcissistic reactions in concord with Nietzsche’s assertion that man can only perceive the world in terms relative to himself, and fabricates the universe around himself at its core.

Nietsche’s claim about language should be troubling to the scientist or the historian whose fundamental purpose is to access truth. But literature for the most part is uniquely unbound in that it need not reconcile itself with truth in this way.  If the sum total virtue of word was its capacity to describe the literal, word-play would not exist. Different forms of utterance would not exist, meaning no singing, no slam poetry, not even variable intonation in speech.  If words meant only the things they intend to describe, we would need a cumbersome amount of them, or increasingly acrobatic ways to put them together, compounding the problem of the world-object gulf.

And we can show this to be untrue.  Words are complexes of associations, networks of glowing neurons that trigger memories, feelings, sights, sounds, tastes, sensory experiences and recollections. Here stems the emotive force of language that transcends the literal.

As opposed to static definitions, words are artistic and mutable renditions of reality.  Literature works to assemble fragments of disparate meanings, and, collectively, with all their various connotations and associations, form a homogenous picture (one big image made from smaller images).


What literary language–fine language–novelly introduces to words is aesthetic value, and in doing so obviates the need for words to have inherent value; their arbitrariness is then rendered no more bothersome than the arbitrariness of preference for chocolate or vanilla.

     Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip  of  the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

     She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four  feet  ten  in  one sock.  She  was  Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

These opening lines are beloved not for their word-for-word literality, but for their imagery and lyricism. Not only can what sounds good be good, but what sounds good is good because there are no dictums on aesthetic preference.

So why should we like Lolita, and regard it as exemplary?  Because of its beauty. Because of its tragedy. And because the coincidence of the two in their juxtaposition are evocative. Beauty is to be sought. Tragedy is to be avoided. We are presented with an immanent dilemma in the very election to read on. Our interest is feed by the desire to know which force succeeds in the end, the pursuit of omniscience, to predict our own fates. Literature combats language’s failure by flinging the failure back in our face: the real world can only be represented by illusion, so literature employ illusions to manifest dream-worlds that overlap real-life such that we can easily conflate the two, and cyclically repeat the process until a dream-world has replaced whatever real-world existed originally. Literature trains us to be indifferent towards reality by interchanging reality with fictions. And so, once we are liberated from preoccupation with ‘real’ reality, we can make peace with language’s failure to touch it.

Language is an incantation. A conjuring.  It is the summoning-spell of ideas and meanings, and like any good magic trick, it features the element of illusion.  And this isn’t a defect.

  1. Russian linguist distinguished for championing the diachronic study of language.
  2. Formal linguistic terminology bifurcating the linguistic sign into the phonetic/pictorial ‘signifier’ and conceptual ‘signified’.  For more, see Ferdinand de Sassure’s influential Course in General Linguistics, on which Volosinov’s work heavily piggybacks.


Works Consulted

“Eye Made of Headshots.” Digital image. Picture Mosaics. Chan Excela, 11 Feb. 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2016. <https://picturemosaics.com/photo-mosaic- tool/hotlink.phpfile=storage/s1/M9994582/ p0/pmt-thumb&e=jpg&s=1>.

“Word.” Sarah Mennel. On Words. Digital image. Odyssey. N.p., 29 Feb. 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2016. <http://az616578.vo.msecnd.net/files/2016/02/29/635923654799611463-251196307_635921981639834124-997424637_word.jpg>.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense. S.l.: Aristeus, 2012. Print.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. N.p.: Random House, 1997. Print.

Voloshinov, V. N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1986. Print.