Bev Jafek's "The Man Who Took a Bite out of His Wife"

©1998 L.Timmel Duchamp

Bev Jafek's story "The Man Who Took a Bite out of His Wife" appears in a collection of her short fiction by the same title, published by The Overlook Press in 1993. I found the book in my local feminist bookstore, thought some of the titles sounded sf-ish, and then saw this blurb by Grace Paley on the back:

Bev Jafek drives a sharp tongue through the conventions of science, marriage and literature. You know you're in the presence of a brainy woman who has taken a look at the world, shuddered and laughed.
How could I resist such a seductive title or such an alluring blurb? I had to try it. And indeed, I enjoyed this book immensely. Her "Schrodinger's Cat," for instance, is hands-down the wittiest, most incisive SF (feminist or otherwise) ever based on the concepts of modern physics (and should probably be required reading for all physics undergraduates). (And Goddess knows there's practically a subgenre of Schrodinger's cat stories.) But it's her title story that is the pièce de resistance. This is a tale spun on the (fantasy, not sf) literalization of the metaphor of woman as the flesh that feeds her husband and children, and explores carnephobia to an extraordinary degree. The title, by the way, is deceptive, since the story doesn't focus on a man who takes bites out of his wife, but on the process and implications of such flesh-feeding with the simultaneous privilege given to those who feed on woman's flesh of perceiving the flesh they feed on as non-existent. This is a story, in other words, of the archetypal perfect nuclear family that some people like to believe existed in the US in the 1950s (though it really only existed on television, even in those years).

The night after the man takes his first bite out of his wife's body--

He knew that he had profoundly enriched his marriage, that both he and his wife would be immensely happier and more content with their life together. He thought of other men and pitied those who lacked this passionate commitment to their wives. He had always known that feeding upon his wife was the actual purpose of the marriage; if he had doubted, procrastinated, it was only a doubt of his own hunger, whether he would ever be quite hungry enough to take his first bite.
Usually a story like this will end with the image of the wife fading from existence and the husband prospering (which certainly does happen in the first part of this story). But Jafek doesn't stop there. It's an impressive-- almost disconcerting-- trait of her stories that she presses on and presses on, insisting on and persisting in elaborating past the point most writers would normally stop. Originally, man and woman-- husband and wife-- are named Eric and Karen; as the story progresses they become Mother and Father, and by the end, they are he and she.

Jafek writes this about Mother, as the family is "gnaw[ing] on various parts of her body":

While they partake of the mute, dark ecstasy, mother begins to apologize. She reveals, again and again, her guilt that she should possess so much significance, while not existing. She catalogues the oddities and contradictions she has engendered. Father is appeased by his second wifely meal of the day. Son and daughter are deeply grateful, since they know their normal development depends on this contradiction in their mother. If she were not simultaneously nourishment and non-existence, they would become strange in untold ways, even monstrous. They believe that a human being can become a monster. The earth is secretly pervaded by sordidness, and their mother saves them from them.
The story has quite a bit farther to go after this point, believe it or not. It ends only after Mother as such no longer has any flesh left with which to feed her family, after she has become a dried-up, elderly "doll."

Several of the images in this story provoke me to rethink a certain puzzling, prominent theme in Luce Irigaray's recent work. Jafek gives us distinctly sacramental images of men and children feasting on the flesh of woman. Toward the end of the story, when the woman's flesh is completely consumed and a thin, empty "elderly doll" has taken her place, the husband feasts his eyes on television images of religious scenes in general, but more particularly on images of the Pietà. In Sexes and Genealogies, Luce Irigaray (who objects to her person or work being referred to only by her last name) asserts that the Christian religion is based on an unrecognized sacrifice of woman; and she calls for a new religious spirituality and ethics recognizing and celebrating that sacrifice. She speaks of the need for developing a "female Symbolic," a conceptual and linguistic space for bringing female sexuality into real existence in a world where it is now effaced to the point of nonexistence. More recently, she writes in Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference:

[W]e lack positive ethical values enabling both sexes of the same generation to form a creative, not merely procreative, couple. One of the main obstacles to the creation and recognition of such values is the more or less obscure hold patriarchal and phallocratic models have had for centuries over the whole of our civilization. It is quite simply a matter of social justice to balance out this power of the one sex over the other by giving, or giving back, cultural values to female sexuality... In bypassing this stage, feminism might well work toward the destruction of women, and more generally of all cultural values.
I will pass over, in silence, my discomfort with the clear normatization of the couple in this passage. Luce Irigaray, Rosi Braidotti, and a number of other western European female philosophers (I say female instead of feminist because not all of them choose to be described as feminist-- particularly since the word has had such a peculiar history as a factional football in France) base their work on what they call "difference." I am ambivalent about such work. I find the idea that the "human" must include all the female aspects of women's selves (including both biologically- and socially-produced characteristics), and that, therefore, a woman not be considered human only to the extent that she gives up every marked characteristic, absolutely necessary. This idea the "difference" theorists insist upon, thus making their work interesting to me. I, too, have always had trouble with "equality" theories of liberation since "equality" tends to denote "the exact same as for a man," thus erasing the particularities of most women's experience. But on the other hand, I am troubled by the goal of "difference" theorists in salvaging and transforming the ugly construct of Woman into something new and truly different, something supposedly independent of the wretched hierarchical binary--- rather than eliminating it altogether. The entire idea of Woman (or "gynesis") rests on the splitting of human into male and female, mind and body, where female and body are the marked terms onto which is projected every characteristic and function of the human being that is negatively valued. "Woman" in such a split exists as a concept solely to contain everything that "man" is not; "woman" is the exclusionary means for defining human (and male). "Difference" theorists describe this split very well. Here is Luce Irigaray's characterization of it in Je, Tu, Nous:
Most of the time, in men's discourse, the world is designated as inanimate abstractions integral to the subject's world. Reality appears as an always already cultural reality, linked to the individual and collective history of the masculine subject. It's always a matter of a secondary nature, cut off from its corporeal roots, its cosmic environment, its relation to life. This relation is only ever mentioned to be denied, and is perpetually passing into uncultured behavior. The forms may change, but the blind immediacy of the behavior stays the same. The male subject's relations to his body, to what it has given him, to nature, to the bodies of others, including those of his sexual partners, are yet to be developed. In the meantime, the realities of which his discourse speaks are artificial, mediated to such an extent by one subject and one culture that it's not really possible share them. Yet that's what language is for. Furthermore, these realities are so far distanced from life that they become deadly, as Freud predicted when he spoke of the cultural primacy of death drives.
I agree with her characterization of this split as deadly. But I see women, also, as "distanced from life" and speaking this discourse characterized as men's. How many women in the US, for instance, failed to fall for the distanced technological glamorization of "bombing the Iraquis back to the stone age," of "shooting fish in a barrel" offered up by CNN and other television networks? Men's discourse is spoken everywhere by women. And pace the "difference" theorists, I'm not certain that I believe in a women's discourse, which Luce Irigaray locates on the other side of the split, "silenced for centuries" (but latent, she says: "expressed in privileged ways-- through adjectives, for example-- and not in the predicate that is currently produced. Linguistically, that might mean that the language they use at present coresponds to an altered version of a discourse they used in former times..."). Significantly, Jafek depicts the daughter of the man who took a bite out of his wife as also feasting on the mother even as she denies her existence:
The children understand that this is the greatest pleasure they will ever know. They caress their slim, unresisting bodies again to see if horns and fur have sprouted like horrible tubers. No, they are not monsters. Only their mother is always a monster. They caress themselves again and again, their hands passing lingeringly over their hugely swollen genitals. As mother watches them, a calm comes over her. She, too, is relieved that only she will be the monster. Her claw passes over the remnants of her body and comes to rest inside her vagina, still perfectly intact. Like those of her children, mother's genitals are swollen and reddish. Her eyes close in deep harmonic appreciation: so human life passes from one generation to another, she thinks.


Son and daughter lie in their bedrooms, their thoughts filled with images that make their genitals swell again and again: gorging and rape, starvation and ecstasy. These thoughts are some of the most beautiful they have ever encountered: lightest and swiftest of dancers, images floating in the mind's airy torrent without gravity or cause. Where have these image come from? they wonder. How have they grown into young adults with such mysteriously active genitals? They will never know. They are the young man and woman their parents desired, hypnotized by the mind's floating images, beautiful and untrue.

Finally, of course, the daughter becomes the mother-- complicitously-- precisely because she has been raised to feast on the mother's body, raised to project all monstrousness onto she who has always nourished her:
Son is a burly, massive man, prone to overweight and lust, yet masculine and rosy... A fine, appropriate son, his father thinks. Daughter is more ambiguous. Something glacial and remote trembles in her eye, perhaps the doll coming early. Yet what a magnificent, round bosom, shoulder, hip: what hunger she is made for! This daughter will last far longer than her mother, the final vindication of the plastic doll.
"Difference" theorists are interested not only in valorizing certain excluded functions and characteristics, but also in establishing a symbolic system capable of recognizing (instead of either dissing or ignoring) them. My own tendency is to argue for eschewing all dualistic splits (which, granted, is nearly impossible, given their thorough-going inscription in language), and to oppose any sexual division of labor. Jafek's' story brings out the reservations I have for feminist theories of difference while at the same time reminding me of how destructive and useless an instrumentalist definition of "human" really is.

Feminist science fiction generally refuses the "dream" (or nightmare) of escape from the body. Women who write cyborg fiction generally insist on the carnality of their characters' social relations and everyday life. (Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends offers a fine example of this.) I've observed that discussions among feminists on the question of what it means to be affirmatively embodied almost always elicits statements that as we go about our daily lives, we aren't particularly conscious of being "women" at any given moment, as opposed to feeling "human;" that is, some particular (social) stimulus is generally required to make us conscious of being specifically female. This is not to say that such statements repudiate our flesh, but rather that we reject the hypostatization of some special way of living in the flesh that supposedly Real Women actually experience. (See my story, "De Secretis Mulierum," for contrasting examples of a repudiation of embodiment in female flesh by Thomas Aquinas on the one hand and a delight in that same embodiment in female flesh by Leonardo da Vinci on the other hand, where both of these characters are women passing as men: Thomas with desperation, and Leonardo playfully.)

But as Jafek tells the story, the characters, precisely because they partake in this sacramentalization of the wife's/mother's flesh (with simultaneous designation of her as monster and non-existing), are alienated from the world "outside" (the family)-- which they variously call "meat" or "flesh" or "elfin" or "unreal"-- in contrast to their perceptions of and language for the father, who they consider the most real of all of them, a veritable agoraphobic "giant" who rules first as company vice president, then as city mayor, and finally as state governor from within the "fortress" (as Jafek calls it) of his home. These characters are decidedly sick and dysfunctional. Jafek has no intention of celebrating this sacrifice.

But if I understand her correctly, Luce Irigaray is saying that we need to recognize and celebrate this very flesh-feeding sacrament: that this is woman's role, but that because it is denied and negated (as Jafek's characters deny and negate the wife/mother's sacrifice even as they partake of it, and with her conscious connivance), it is unhealthy and oppressive. Luce Irigaray, it seems to me, is saying that eliminating this flesh-feeding as Jafek depicts it is for everyone to become male, that flesh-feeding is what female sexuality is all about, and that what's wrong in the world is our not accepting, recognizing and celebrating it, such that women's power as flesh-feeders (which Jafek's wife/mother glories in-- but covertly, secretly, clandestinely, as a hidden power only she knows exists) is good, necessary, and natural. It would follow for "difference" theorists, then (if my understanding of their work is correct) that the only thing wrong with Jafek's family picture is the denial and concealment of the wife's/mother's power, and the feeling that flesh (and things of the "earth") is "sordid" and generative of monsters.

Should we not be insisting that it is wrong to stick anyone with the sacrificial role of being food for everyone else? Jafek's story, I believe, is insisting just that. Simply recognizing and celebrating this function will still allow the preservation of the horrid taking and selfishness and denial of embodiment on the other side of the split, and will insist on continuing the special marking of "woman" as subordinate to the more general designation "human." Carnephobia, I must finally conclude, will prevail as long as these functions and characteristics designated as female are posed dualistically.

April, 1996

back to homepage