‘The Toymaker and His Wife’ by Joanne Harris: Short Story Analysis
‘The Toymaker and His Wife’ is a satire on the sexism that exists in marriage. The Norse folktale story is penned by highly acclaimed British writer Joanne Harris, famous for her book Chocolat and #storytime, short fiction tweets. She is also the author of The Evil Seed and Sleep, Pale Sister, both well-received and beautiful books. ‘The Toymaker and His Wife’ shows us how men or husbands try to change their wives to suit their needs. The short story highlights the passivity with which women, like the toymaker’s wife, allow the tampering of their personality, feelings, beauty, and even emotional center. It is done mainly by women who want to save their marriages and are, therefore, willing to give in to anything that their husbands ask them to do. The short story is hard-hitting, and the ending proves to us that men love to dominate their women in marriage and seek their pleasure but kill the needs and emotions of their wives.
The short story depicts the misogynistic way men, especially husbands, look at their women or wives. Patriarchy and its paradoxes are central themes in this story. The narrator is omnipotent and narrates the story, which sounds like a folktale when it is one of the finest post-modern short fiction ever written about the ills of sexism and how men perceive women they ‘claim’ to love. The story is told as a Norse folktale, which Harris is fond of writing. We realize this because of the mention of the phrase the nine worlds. In ancient Norse mythology and cosmology, Yggdrasil is an immense tree that sprang forth in the primordial void of Ginnungagap, unifying the nine worlds.
Notice that the toymaker’s work defines him, while his wife is ‘his wife’. His work is described and praised in detail but not his wife’s work. It indicates how even in the area of occupation, jobs, and work, women are not given their due and have a lot of glass ceilings to break. Women have to be respected for the work they do, especially if it is housework. Work is work – period!
The story titled ‘The Toymaker and His Wife’ begins with the statement that the toymaker was dissatisfied with his marriage. That sets the tone for the story, indicative that because he is dissatisfied, he is going to try and do something where either he or his wife shall suffer. In this case, he slowly changes his wife’s very body, mind, and soul over time. Harris uses the allegorical story of a toymaker making a porcelain doll of his once flesh and blood wife. This transformation of the wife into a porcelain doll is dramatic and hard-hitting. It focuses on how women are perceived as beautiful dolls by men and something they can take the utmost advantage. Most husbands feel that after marriage, wives cease to have an individuality of their own and that their only identity comes from being associated with the man in their life.
The short story also focuses on how we look at women’s bodies. We perceive the body of a woman to be sexual tools gratifying the wants of men. Even if men marry women they love, slowly as time passes, the husband realizes that the sexuality of his faithful wife doesn’t ignite him to sensual passions anymore. They then try to change their wives. We see so many beauty products in advertisements to help make women after marriage look younger and as attractive as when their husbands first courted them. There is so much focus on women to change themselves. We see the same obsessiveness with the ‘so-called’ feminine beauty, behavior, and sexual appeal. Women are not allowed to be human. Instead, a standard is set for them, and they have to maintain that standard to benefit their men. The different measures of feminine beauty and sexual appeal are different for different cultures. Still, since globalization, it is apparent that women are mostly looked upon as beautiful sexual pleasure dolls without a heart. They seem to be born to satisfy the needs of men.
The toymaker is a perfectionist, and he yearns for that same perfection in his wife, whom he married for love. He repents for marrying her because she is not suitable for what his mind deems as ‘perfect’. Every man has his vision of ‘the perfect wife’; women have to stake their claim and define themselves as individual personalities and not somebody else’s ‘living doll’ to play around with. This perfectionist toymaker changes his wife slowly, indistinguishable to the wife. However, we, as readers, notice this change. The toymaker changes:
- Her hair because it has gone gray. Here the wife is uncomfortable with the change and muses how before the toymaker married her, she used to seem perfect to him. She remembers all this while staring at her new golden hair in the mirror. It is the first and only time a sort of hesitant uncomfortableness is noticed in the wife. After this, she will remain docile to all the other changes because she has grown accustomed to her perfectionist husband’s whims.
- He makes her tongue into a mechanical one that doesn’t speak the truth, but what he as the family’s patriarch wants to hear. Thus, since the wife could not stop his tampering with her body for the first time, the toymaker husband continues to tamper with her personality and body.
- He takes away her right and only means to speak her mind: He takes away her voice. It is symbolic of feminism and how women of all backgrounds should not let anyone, even other women, take away their rights or freedom of speech.
- He makes her eyes tear-free and bright and approving of all his actions. It indicates how a wife whose mind is conditioned to her husband’s viewpoints sees and perceives things as he does, even if they are evil. A man or a woman who manipulates another woman is doing a heinous crime and must not be tolerated but must be reformed.
- He makes her hands of white porcelain always to do clever things and not be sloppy or slow. He then goes on to change every inch of her body to suit his needs and desires. He makes her into a doll, like his toys. He made his wife into his toy.
Finally, he realizes that because of all his tinkering, his wife’s heart had broken. He was ready to change or repair his wife’s heart but doesn’t do so because he, like most misogynist men, prefer their version of their wife’s personality to that of their wives’ true essence. So, he takes out her heart, throws it on the rubbish heap, and kisses his ‘beautiful living doll’, his wife’s dead cold lips. He mentions that now she was perfect, but she was only perfect in the misogynist sense. The ‘at last’ phrase used in the last sentence of the short story is ironic because, from ages past for men, the perfect woman’s standards have been continuously changing. There will never be a time for men or other people who follow the patriarchal ideology to perceive women as ‘perfect’. This is because human beings were not born to be perfect but to be striving towards perfection amid a myriad of individualities and diversified people—men, women, and others alike. The theme of feminism will keep on changing as the years go by. I have dealt with feminist themes in my Indian fiction. You can check out the products page or Amazon for my novella NIRMALA: The Mud Blossom, which deals with how Indian women are abused from the cradle to the grave. You can also check out my novel Amina: The Silent One, which deals with feminism and music.
‘The Toymaker and His Wife’ has a potent message and reminder to everyone to stop harassment based on gender, especially women. We need to remind ourselves that women are deserving of all love and respect irrespective of race, religion, caste, creed, nationality, or anything else.
I enjoyed Joanne Harris’s short story titled ‘The Toymaker and His Wife’. I have not yet read her books but have all three novels Chocolat, Cry, Pale Sister, and The Evil Seed in my possession. I will have to rummage through my books in my office-cum-writing hut. I would especially love to read Chocolat, which has long been on my TBR list, but I’ve never picked up to read because I never gave myself a chance. To know more about my life in books and with books, you can buy my memoir on Amazon. Just click the title on the products page. It’s called Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. I’m sure you will enjoy it.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in buying my books, you can check out my products page. There are a lot of great books to buy. Happy reading to you always!
Copyright © 2020 Fiza Pathan