Melville fans will notice some familiar rhetorical moves in "My Wife and I," none more obvious than when the narrator (call him Persy for Perseverance) undertakes to explain his reckless vow to buy the wife a new dress:
Near the end of the story, Persy's indiscreet reflections on the suitability of Eve's fig-leaf makes his wife "indignant":
Among many delightful lines of dialogue and commentary, my favorite has to be where the narrator contemplates teaching his wife to say "The flour barrel is empty" in a more mellifluous language than English:
MY WIFE AND I.
“OH dear, I wish I were rich !"
This remark was extracted from my wife (as an obstinate molar might be extracted by a dentist) by the contemplation of a large opening in the toe of little Persy's stocking, which she had been trying in vain to devise some mode of closing, without destroying the symmetry of the garment, while a pile of similar articles, of various sizes and patterns, lay at her elbow, as much in need of mending as an old rake's habits. There they lay, seven pairs of little stockings, while their seven daily occupants were snugly snoozing in bed, forgetful of the many weary stitches their little feet had caused; and all around, on tables and chairs, was scattered a promiscuous assortment of juvenile aprons and dresses, jackets and breeches, each one bearing its owner's mark, in the shape of rips and rents.
"I wish I were rich!" repeated my wife.
There was a strength and heartiness in the tone and manner which left no doubt of her sincerity, and in an instant my mind went back some twenty years, to the time when we had been rich—rich in our young love, rich in our mutual dependence, and rich in the bright hopes which not only gilded but fairly plated the future all over with twenty-carat plate at least—as together we looked down the long vista of coming years, fair flowers of joy around our feet, ripe fruits of happiness over our heads, the richest of all riches, contentment, in our hearts, and flour at only five dollars a barrel.
Almost twenty years ago those soft hazel eyes that now beam with tender, matronly love, first told the story of that love which those rosy lips (their bloom has not yet faded) confirmed; and that fair, round face that has grown fairer and rounder year by year, first lay upon my breast in maiden trustfulness.
We did not fall in love, nor walk into it, nor glide into it, but we took to it by instinct as ducks take to water, and we were married, with about as definite an idea of the modes and means of meeting our current expenses as a raw Irishman has of Egyptian hieroglyphics, or a charcoal peddler of honesty.
There must be a special Providence which watches over fools and young married people.
In point of worldly possessions we commenced with nothing, and have had it ever since; for, what with the increased expense of living, and our success in adding to the census returns, each year finds us as far from the possession of a respectable competency as its predecessor. Financially we have scrambled along in a helter-skelter way, tumbling into little puddles of debt from time to time, with now and then a long interval of exemption, to be followed by a new tumble and a new scramble for safety. Until now, on this cold Saturday night in January, my wife and I sit cozily by our cheerful fire, she with a load of unmended and to-be-mended stockings on her mind, and I, ostensibly reading, trying to solve the great problem of the relation between supply and demand; at least, so far as to make my own weekly supplies cover the weekly demands of my wife, children, the grocer, and the landlord. And so I sit, buried in thought, now brightened by remembrances of early happiness, and now darkened by shades of unpaid January bills, which load my desk, making the demand for the great staple, money, far exceed the supply, thereby, according to our best political economists, enhancing its value.
Meantime my wife, still laboring under the weight of the stockings, says, for the third time, with increased fervor and a slight degree of asperity, as though demanding a reply,
“Oh dear! dear! I wish I were rich.”
“Riches, my love, take to themselves wings and fly away,” I replied, with the air of one who had seen myriads of tender young dollars put on their pin feathers, become fully fledged, and soar away to unknown regions like a flock of wild geese, leaving not even the smell of money behind.
“Well, if they do, they must go to roost somewhere, and I don't see why some of them can't settle here as well as elsewhere,” said my wife, as she commenced on a fresh stocking; and then added, with a slight dash of acidity, “There's no danger of our riches flying away!"
“No, my dear, the wealth of loving hearts, of unstained consciences, and contented dispositions is a permanent investment, and not at all prone to aerial flights. These are your only true riches. With these, you are richer than Croesus; without them, poor indeed.”
“That's all very well, but that kind of property don't constitute a legal tender. You can't pay the grocer with consciences and dispositions, however pure and contented. They don't go half as far as promises, for I've known you to make those last a year. But speaking of the grocer reminds me that I thought I saw bottom of the flour barrel this morning.”
Now I knew in an instant that there wasn't flour enough in that barrel to make a homeopathic biscuit, for I had had a hint of its condition the day before, in the shape of an inquiry from my wife, “What is flour worth now?” —expressed in a tone intended to indicate that she had no more interest in the matter than she had in the number of statute miles between the earth and the moon.
It is a pleasant little fiction of hers, that a delicate hint, in relation to the consumptive state of that important ingredient in domestic economy, falls more lightly upon the ear of the moneyless than the plain and simple, though appalling statement, "The flour barrel is empty;" and she will resort to all manner of expedients for bringing the case to my mind rather than state it in plain English. In fact, I have sometimes thought of teaching her to say it in Spanish, and thus remove a little of its harshness, but as she had no aptness for any tongue, except her own, I have abandoned the idea.
The purchase of a barrel of flour is an event in our household economy not to be treated lightly. It requires preparation and consideration. In the first place, a certain sum of money is to be provided to meet the emergency, for whatever latitude the grocer may allow in minor matters, when you talk to him of flour you must produce the quid pro quo, or there is no trade.
The next point to be decided is the selection of the "brand." This leads to a friendly interchange of views between the heads of the home department, which always results in my being commissioned to purchase the highest priced article in the market, and a caution to avoid all attempts at false economy by investing in a cheaper quality. In my younger days, I once made a purchase of a barrel of second quality (as the grocer called it), to see if my wife would know the difference; and I believe I have had the biscuit that were made from it thrown at me ever since.
You should see my wife when she assists at the opening of the new barrel, and its snowy treasures are disclosed to her gratified gaze. Smiles dimple her rosy cheeks, and pleasure sparkles in her eyes. How tenderly she lifts each dipperful from its receptacle, examines it with the eye of a judge, and pronounces its quality with the air of an expert! And what a glow of housewifely satisfaction mantles her fair face, when the first baking confirms her judgment! And then as, day be day, she descends deeper and deeper into its recesses, each dipperful, snowy though it be, leaves a shade upon her brow, until at last the flour and the smiles and dimples disappear together.
As I sit reading of an evening, I can hear that wooden dipper thumping at the staves or gently scraping the bottom of the barrel as it descends in search of the wherewithal for the bread of the coming day, and I know that my wife is intimating by these means the necessity of a fresh supply as plainly as though she told me in so many words, for she knows that I can hear every thump. And by-and-by she comes in looking as demure as a kitten, and none but the initiated would ever dream that she had an empty flour barrel on her mind. But the next day brings a fresh barrel, fresh smiles and dimples, and a renewed depletion of the already attenuated purse. The smiles and dimples are always cheap at the price, even if the flour is not.
As I meditated on this momentous subject, I could see by the knitting of her brow and the increased vigor with which she applied herself to her weekly task, that my wife's financial aspiration was still working in her mind, and knowing by long experience that confined thoughts, like explosive gases, must have vent, and fearing that some more violent remark might be shot at me, like a pellet from a gun, I replied:
"True, my dear, I know that the grocer will only be satisfied with gold or its equivalent, which he is much better calculated to appreciate than purity of intention and loftiness of soul, and fortunately for him, it is much more plentiful in the market though scarce enough with us. But for all that we have untold treasures, if we did but know it."
"They must be untold, for I never heard of them before. If you have such an abundance, I wish you'd spare me enough to buy that black silk dress you promised me so long ago."
It is not to be inferred from this remark that my wife is prone to extravagance in her tastes or habits. She is usually content with plain and modest attire. She has never hidden herself in the recesses of a whalebone pyramid, nor submitted to the modern species of female cooperage; for, as she playfully remarks, “Any body can see that I am a tub without my being hooped.” (She weighs two hundred and one pounds avoirdupois.) No unpaid milliner's bills haunt her waking hours (nor mine). No needy dress-makers rise up in judgment against her. Her bonnet is much too large for our youngest daughter, aged eight years, and really seems designed for use as well as ornament; and from my long acquaintance with her, I am satisfied that she has something in her head worth protecting, unlike those ladies who patronize curtailed bonnets with more ribbon than crown, and more curtain than comfort.
She fully agrees with me when I lecture our young female friends on the extravagance of the age, although she contends that the men are as much to be blamed for it as the women. Of course I never assent to this proposition; and that leads to a friendly argument, from which, in my own opinion, I always gain the advantage—though I must confess that I am occasionally overborne by a torrent of words, especially when some friendly neighbor espouses my wife's side of the question. In such cases I beat a hasty retreat, and watch my opportunity for a new attack upon the position of the enemy under more favorable auspices.
My wife detests flounces (she is too stout to wear them), has no hankering after “moire antique," and only knows of “Honiton" by having seen it mentioned in our daily paper. To be sure she doesn't believe all the criticisms upon the fashions which she sees in that paper, and she even goes so far as to say that she has no idea that the editor himself believes them. I think she is hardly just to the editor—a very clever fellow by-the-way, who never meddles with any thing but politics, except Church matters, ladies' dresses, and fish—and who never gets into trouble as long as he sticks to the politics and fish.
But to return to the black silk dress. Some years ago (I don't care to remember how many), under the influence of an excess of affection and a delusion in regard to my financial prospects, I had made a rash promise to purchase such an article for her especial use and adornment; but had coupled the promise with the important proviso, "some time.” We had previously canvassed the relative merits of calicoes, cashmeres, silks and satins, and had decided that one good silk dress was worth half a dozen of any of the others, not only for its present purpose but as being more available in its later stages for the decoration of the young scions of our house, and a sly hint was thrown out that a spare “breadth” out of the skirt might be very useful in refacing any coat of mine that might happen to stand in need of that operation. The "some time" before alluded to, has not yet arrived, and from present appearances it is as far off as when the promise was made. Still, it lingers in my wife's memory, and she occasionally brings it to mind among, I fear, many other unfulfilled promises.
"In regard to the dress, you may depend upon having it 'some time,' but the treasures of which I was speaking are not exactly available for that purpose at present," I replied; "but I can easily convince you that we are possessed of them. Are there not seven rosy-cheeked cherubs (at least you call them so when they are not in mischief) now sleeping in happy unconsciousness of money and its attendant evils, each one of them worth his weight in gold? I've heard you say so many a time. Now at a moderate estimate they will average fifty pounds apiece. Even California gold is worth two hundred dollars a pound. So we have three hundred and fifty pounds of cherubs at two hundred dollars a pound, which, according to simple multiplication, makes seventy thousand dollars' worth of those little heavenly bodies alone."
"Oh! but it isn't nonsense. There it is, figured out according to your own estimate, and a very pretty little sum it makes to begin the world with. Now, my dear, what is my love worth!"
This was a poser. My wife looked up in a haze of blank astonishment as her mind grasped the idea, and I trembled for fear she might say "nothing," and thus overturn the whole groundwork of my theory. But as soon as she had swallowed the idea and mentally digested it, she replied,
"Why don't you ask me what the air is worth? for I could dispense with one as well as the other."
I thanked my wife for the compliment, and congratulated myself that she had drawn no worse comparison between my love and the air; and continued,
"Well then, what do you consider the air worth?"
"I sha'n't answer any such foolish question; for, if you go on with your calculations, you'll make us out millionaires."
"That's what I intend to do; and I think I am safe in putting down the love at a hundred thousand. Then, there is my honor, which is worth at least as much as the love—"
"I've no doubt of it," interrupted my wife—
"For you wouldn't value the one without the other. So there you have the sum of three items alone—cherubs, seventy thousand; love, a hundred thousand; and honor as much more, making the snug sum of more than a quarter of a million dollars, to say nothing of other items that might be mentioned, and which would perhaps double the amount, besides cash on hand amounting to one dollar and seventeen cents."
I paused here for my wife to appreciate the full force of my reasoning (she is a little slow at figures), and when she had had time to turn the whole subject in her mind, I asked,
"What have you to say to that ?”
“All I have to say to that,” replied my wife, "is, that I wouldn't advise you to set up a carriage on the strength of your property. And if I thought, we were worth a quarter of that sum, I wouldn't mend such a looking stocking as this.” Saying which, she held up the stocking of our eldest girl, minus the heel and two-thirds of the toe, with a large rent near the top of the leg.
“And then look at that, and that, and that,” she continued, as she successively presented for my inspection the various articles which constitute the juvenile wardrobe; and I must confess that, seen through that medium, my imposing array of figures seemed scarcely large enough to fill one of the smallest rents among the multitude. Still I fondly hoped that my calculations had had a tendency to raise my wife's spirits, and I was unwilling that she should sink back into that slough of darning-needles and yarn. So I continued the subject.
“Clothes, my dear, especially in the case of children, are a mere matter of form, a blind adherence to the customs of society. If it cost more to wear shreds and patches than whole garments—if rents and rips could be rendered fashionable, all the world would be out at elbows. But though society turns up its nose at last year's fashions—though love looks askance at a seedy lover, and even the Church puts its ban on the threadbare coat, you and I can jog on our way regardless of frowns and favors, conscious of that hidden treasure which gilds and brightens our earthly existence.
"And then, again, compare our condition with that of our first parents, when they had ‘notice to quit' from the Great Landlord, and first commenced housekeeping on their own account. Their wardrobe was extremely limited, and I've no doubt Eve would have been very thankful for a ninepenny calico, and Adam would not have scorned good satinet, even though the cut of the garments had been a few months old. For however rural a fig-leaf suit might appear, it is not exactly adapted for general use, especially with the thermometer at zero. And I don't think that a lady of your weight in the community would appear to advantage in that primitive style of dress.”
"Perseverance !" exclaimed my wife, as she colored with indignation at the idea, and laid down the last of the stockings, preparatory to seeking her nightly rest.
She never calls me “Perseverance” except when she is astonished or indignant; and I knew by the tone of her voice that it would useless to pursue the subject at present. So, winding up my argument and the little wooden clock that graces our mantle, I addressed myself to slumber, while that murmured aspiration floated on the midnight air from my wife's half-opened lips—
"Oh dear! I wish I were rich!"
"My Wife and I" was anonymously published, as usual for periodical fiction in the 19th century. With very little fanfare the Harper's piece seems to have made an immediate hit, enjoying a rapid and wide circulation via numerous newspaper reprintings. For example: