*Spoiler Alert: Don’t Read Until You’ve Seen This Film*
The Wife slowly and disturbingly reveals many things about Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) and her marriage to 1992 Nobel Prize Winner, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). She’s lived a lie, loving a narcissist. Allowed it. She’s become merely “the wife.” But, when Joe asks her, as she finally gains the courage to leave him after almost 40 years: “Why did you marry me,” she has no idea. Why Joan married him is a good question. But, the more important question is why she’d sell her soul for love? And, what does it mean, loving a narcissist? These questions can only be answered by looking at the disowned parts of Joan and Joe. Those disowned parts are given to the other; and for complicated psychological reasons, the other readily accepts them.
Joan and Joe Castleman live in this unconscious agreement as The Wife begins.
Joan The Narcissist’s Wife
The film opens and we find Joan and Joe’s love clearly strained.
It is 1992. Joe has just received the call that’s he’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. He’s elated. Joan, good at self-sacrifice or pretense of love or both, appears elated too. A narcissist’s wife must feed his hungers.
How did they get here?
Flashback to Smith College, 1955: where their ill-fated marriage began. Joan, a young writing student, is enamored with her handsome and emotionally brittle professor, Joe Castleman.
Joan is a gifted writer. Joe isn’t. And, that he cannot face.
Yet, despite her talent, Joan is shy and insecure. She retreats from being seen. Convinces herself she doesn’t need or want the limelight.
Loving A Narcissist
Joe needs it. He needs to be recognized. Needs to be great. His fragile ego can’t take anything less. He gives his insecurities to Joan. She’s a perfect repository since she has her own.
Joan listens raptly as Professor Joe pontificates: “A writer writes because if he does not, his soul will starve.” Joe is greedy. He’ll eat anyone up not to starve. That’s what it means, loving a narcissist.
He sees Joan’s talent. But he criticizes her writing out of envy. Others see her talent too. No one supports her, though, and she believes men have the power.
So do other women of that era; including a bitter writer who returns to Smith to give a reading: “You’re talented I hear.” Joan answers: “I love to write. It’s my life.”
The woman warns: “Don’t do it. Your books will end up on the alumni shelf. Don’t ever think you can get their attention. The men who run the publishing houses; who make the decision about who is read.”
Yet … think Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Margaret Mitchell, and Carson McCullers to name a few. Those women’s voices were heard.
Not Joan’s. The young Joan is hungrier for love than success. She lets Joe feed on her talent. He takes it as though it is his. Joan confuses self-absorbed neediness for love. She accepts starvation.
They are the perfect folie à deux of self-deception and lies.
The Walnut & The Narcissist
Narcissists look like they have the best self-esteem in the world. They don’t. Narcissists live on admiration. Joe needs constant supplies; he has to have it to stay one step ahead of his real self-loathing.
One wife won’t do. Joe often needs a “fix.” He doesn’t care that his affairs hurt Joan. His needs come first. He knows how to seduce to get the adoring mirror he wants.
Joe lures women with a message on a walnut.
The first time Joan sees Joe’s walnut trick is in 1955. She’s in his faculty office. He breaks off a softer piece of the nut inside the hard shell and feeds her a taste. When he asks her if she’s free on Saturday night, she excitedly thinks he’s asking her on a date. Instead, he wants her to babysit. He’s married.
Taking care of his baby, she snoops in his bedroom drawers. She finds a walnut with the inscription: “Carol. I love you true.” She doesn’t heed this warning; she falls in love with him anyway. Joan’s next story for Joe’s class is titled The Faculty Wife.
Selling Her Soul For “Love”
Out of desperation for Joe’s love, she sees Carol as a shrew and blames her for her anger. Joan doesn’t get angry for close to 40 years.
Joe’s marriage to Carol ends. Carol becomes a psychiatrist, refusing to be only the wife. For “love,” Joan sells her soul. Joe uses Joan to win the Nobel Prize in Literature as “the greatest living American writer.”
Does she have a choice? She doesn’t think so. When she’s candid with him about his writing, he gets agitated and questions their relationship. He demands awe not honesty.
His threats scare her. She pleads with him: “Please don’t leave me. If I lose you, my life is over. It’s a compelling story … I can fix it. Do you want me to fix it?”
He does. She fixes it. He stays. Their charade begins. She gives up her voice to save his soul and becomes Joe’s ghostwriter. “His” first bestseller is The Walnut.
Biographer & Accidental Savior
Histories inform. The film tells us nothing about Joan’s history or her family, except to infer they weren’t happy about her marrying a gregarious Brooklyn Jew.
We can assume that her shyness isn’t simple. She must have learned long ago that her voice didn’t matter. Did she feel like nothing then? She felt she’d be nothing without Joe. Ironically, it was the other way around.
But, there is an accidental savior in Stockholm. The biographer, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) follows the Castleman’s to dig up salacious details on Joe Castleman’s life.
He seduces the lonely Joan into meeting him for a drink. In his abrasively forthright questions bolstered by his research into her years at Smith, Bone becomes a catalyst for Joan to face her mistakes and her truths. She never lets him know it. Cannot trust him.
Yet, as slimy and devious as Bone is: he sees her for who she is. He makes her mad. But, he leaves her thinking about a way out of the web of lies she’s spun around her life because of her fears.
Taking Back Her Soul
In Stockholm, Joan lets Joe tell the Nobel Prize Winner in Physics (whose wife is also a scientist): “My wife doesn’t write, thank God. Otherwise I’d have permanent writer’s block.” She’s lived this lie because the lie benefits him. Anger is a necessity to reclaim her soul.
As Joan listens to Joe accept the Nobel Prize in Literature (not so raptly as she listened in 1955), she begins to feel the rage that has been on a very slow burn for years:
“This honor should really go to my wife, Joan. I’d be at home staring at a blank piece of paper … Joan, you are my muse, my love, my soul, and I share this honor with you.”
In the taxi, she finally gives it to him: “I’m leaving you. I can’t do this anymore. This show. My words. My pain. Turning your affairs into masterpieces. You telling people that your wife doesn’t write – when I just won the Nobel Prize.”
“Why did you marry me?” “I don’t know.” No one knows what happened, when they give up a soul, in loving a narcissist.
Stopping The Charade
Loving a narcissist means living his charade. And, Jona’s has been a long and finely honed charade, to be sure. Out of insecurity. Confused love. The fear she is nothing without him. Joan made a King and now it is up to her, and her alone, to dethrone him. This is what The Wife tells us.
Still, in Stockholm, Joe is suddenly dead, of a heart attack. Joan’s worst fear has happened. But, is it? The other half of the lie is gone. On the plane home, though, she cautions Nathaniel Bone: “if you malign Joe’s talent in any way I’ll take you to court.”
She may live the pretense to the world, but no longer for herself.
Settling back in her seat, Joan leafs through her composition book. She comes to the end of all that has been written so far. Staring at a blank page, her hand caresses it. It won’t be blank for long.
This one is for her. A writer needs to write or her soul will die. Her soul died by becoming “The Wife.” But, Joan’s life isn’t over without Joe. Now it can begin.