Literary Wives: The Blazing World

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt.

Ariel @  One Little Library
Kate @ Kate Rae Davis
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink
TJ @ My Book Strings

The Book


Artist Harriet Burden has long suspected that her work has been discounted as serious because of her gender. So she decides to test out her theory by having three different men act as her work’s proxies. She chooses the men at different stages of their careers and has them pass off her work as their own, to great critical acclaim. But her last cover, Rune, a successful artist in his own right turns on her, refusing to allow her to claim back her work. Their intense struggle ends only when Rune dies under mysterious circumstances.


My Thoughts

I was so ready to like this book. An angry women intent on proving that her industry doesn’t take her seriously because of her gender, a struggle that ends in the bizarre death of her male foil? Sign me up!

Unfortunately, for me, the execution of it left something to be desired. I’m not ever really a huge fan of diary style books. I don’t like the disjointed feeling of articles and research and journal entries making up the narrative of a book and that was no different in the case of The Blazing World. I also found it odd that a book about a woman asserting her place in her creative world was told by other people – maybe that was the point and my dense ass missed it. But it annoyed me. Especially when I was reading articles or interviews by men who were critical of Harriet and her work, calling her a liar and a hanger on and only known because she was the wife of her late husband, the critic Felix Lord (great name). Again, maybe that was the point but it grated on me.

Even when there were sections of the book that I was enjoying, they were always short lived. I never felt like I got a good sense of Harriet, that the chaos of her inner life made it impossible to get to know her. I’m not sure that anyone in her life ever actually got to know her; Phineas Q.Eldridge, her second cover, probably got the closest of anyone.

I was also promised a bizarre death, one that was aswirl with rumour and intrigue and in the end, it was a pretty run of the mill suicide?

I think I got so caught up in the style of the book that I wasn’t able to appreciate the content. Which is a shame because there might have been something to it. For me though, The Blazing World didn’t spark any great feeling in this reader, except relief when I finished it.

What does the book say about being a wife?

It’s taken me a while to get buy head wrapped around the question of being a wife within the scope of The Blazing World. There is the obvious parts that have to do with Harriet married to Felix and how her career took a backseat to his. That while he was a successful art dealer, responsible for kickstarting numerous art careers, she was a wife and mother, known only as “Felix’s wife.”

Most of the time I was struck by Harriet’s anger, not at being a wife, but at being dismissed because of her gender. Right after Felix’s death, she is annoyed at being known  just as her husband’s wife, which is what starts her thinking about her new project. But that project becomes less about having been a wife and more about the disappointments of her work not being critically recognized because they were just the dabblings of a woman. She rages at the men in her life not because she felt trapped in her marriage but because she’s been discounted her entire life, starting with a father who wished she was a boy. She spends her entire life consumed by anger and in the end, it felt like all that rage killed her. It was her reproductive organs, the ones that defined her sex, that turned deadly.

But each of Harriet’s ‘collaborations’ with the male artists she picks for her project can be seen as a kind of creative marriage. Within each relationship Harriet must assert her role, must fight to find the light working in the shadows of her ‘husband.’ Ultimately, with her final ‘husband’, Harriet fails and she withers in the darkness of this failure.

The Blazing World seems to say that if women want success in their careers, they can’t be trapped in marriage, that the demands of a husband, the destructive forces of the needs of children, will destroy any plans for career success. In order for a woman to fulfill her career ambitions, she needs to stand on her own, not weighed down by others. In attempting to show the world that her work hasn’t been seen because she’s been the wrong sex, Harriet discovers that she’s entered into another kind of marriage that has snuffed out the glowing embers of what could have been a great career on her own terms.

16 thoughts on “Literary Wives: The Blazing World

  1. Interesting that the author is the second wife of Paul Auster. I’ve read Auster’s memoir and I liked it a great deal. I haven’t read his fiction, but he is so prominent in the literary world, seems an intimidating figure – I wonder what the author’s relationship/marriage with him is like. I think, for women artists of my generation, being in a relationship with a male artist was usually problematic – not always, of course. I liked your review; I’d probably feel much the same as you do. And I don’t especially care for articles, letters, diaries, etc. I get the impression that there might be too much of an agenda on the part of the author for me to enjoy and surrender to the book.

    • I didn’t know that about Paul Auster – I haven’t read any of his work but have been intrigued by 4,3,2,1. Not enough to read it, apparently!
      YES! It felt exactly like there was an agenda and it was hard to get around that enough to enjoy the reading.

  2. We both seem to be getting at the same thing in the end – that her project might not have been the best way for her to assert herself into the art world… still kind of hiding behind men.

    Good point about the fact that her reproductive organs are what kill her. I hadn’t thought of that!

    Even though I read it only a couple of weeks ago, I already can’t remember what Rune’s death had to do with Harriet?

    • That’s the thing! In the end, nothing! And I so expected her to have a hand in it. It’s kind of framed like he did it so that he’d never be held accountable, like his version would be taken as gospel because he’s gone.

  3. Oh, I didn’t get that message at all, that a woman who wants to be successful can’t be married. I don’t think Hustvedt was generalizing about marriage, just talking about that marriage. What she’s saying about the experiment is that the art world is sexist and ageist.

    • After her husband dies, Harriet realizes how angry she is, that she didn’t/couldn’t have a career while she was married to him and looking after his children. Even though she loved the kids, I got the sense that in the After, she regretted the time she didn’t spend on her own career.
      I don’t think anyone is surprised by her assertion that the art world is sexist and ageist. It’s not exactly groundbreaking.

  4. I found the setup of the book almost overwhelming, too. And I hadn’t considered how many opinions and views we get from men, rather than women. I should have noticed, because I got annoyed with myself that I agreed with some of the points that were made by that sexist reporter who wrote the book about Rune. 🙂 I agree with Kay, though. I didn’t think Hustvedt made the point that successful women who want a career can’t be married or have children. I didn’t get the feeling that Harriet resented having to care for her children. Her husband, though… Harriet had every reason to be angry at him, although I thought that anger got a bit out of hand towards the end. I like that you are likening her collaborations to marriage. I kept wondering how much her work was influenced by her knowledge that it would be exhibited by someone else.

    • I don’t think she resented having the kids, but there was a lot of resentment within her marriage. I didn’t get the sense that Felix was an equal partner when it came to their kids, that she arranged their life so that he could focus on his career when necessary. In that way, she wasn’t able to have kids, a husband and her career.
      She was completely consumed by her anger in the end! She loses so much but she was her own worst enemy.

  5. This one is still on my TBR; I had meant to read it for the group’s discussion, but lost track of it around the idea of reading plans for the coming year and, so, it still sits on the TBR. I recently heard an old interview with her about the subject and she not only spoke about the marriage a fair bit but just as much about the mothering, so I think it’s interesting that the resentment of the marriage seemed to stand out more in your reading of the novel, as the interview made it seem (or maybe it’s just my take on it) that both impacted the story equally. It definitely sounds like a complex story and it’s too bad that it wasn’t your cup of tea in the end!

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