Thursday, September 20, 2018

Fritz Leiber, Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz. "Conjure Wife." Unknown Worlds, April 1943
______. Conjure Wife. Witches Three. Twayne Publishers, August 1952
______. Conjure Wife. New York: Ace, November 1977 (my edition, pictured)

Conjure Wife at ISFdb
Conjure Wife at Goodreads

Rating:     8/10

Fritz Leiber's tale of witchcraft run rampant in modern society was first published in a shorter form, in the April 1943 issue of Unknown Worlds, edited at the time by John W. Campbell, and with illustrations by Frank Kramer. Conjure Wife saw print in its entirety in 1952, as the lead-in story for the triad Witches Three, alongside stories by James Blish (There Shall Be No Darkness) and Fletcher Pratt (The Blue Star). It appeared as a stand-alone novel the following year, published by Twayne Publishers in New York.

In brief, the novel involves a small-town college professor who discovers that his wife is a practicing witch. A man of unshakable reason, he forces his devoted spouse to do away with all her charms and anything associated with witchcraft. Ever obedient, her purge has results that are entirely unexpected for our professor. Witchcraft and the competitive nature of academia are hand-in-hand in this well-regarded novel, Leiber's first.

Among the most interesting aspects of the novel is that, though the author is bound tightly to his narrator, both being intellectual and logical (Leiber was a competitive chess player, for one), it is the superstitious world that supersedes the rational. As much as we wish to believe the world functions the way that science would have us believe, it is the spells and charms that control our destiny and station in life.

Though the plot focuses primarily on how the supernatural drives our lives, the world Leiber has created is one of balance; the supernatural exists to balance out the rational. Without the rational there would be nothing deemed supernatural, as the latter would be the norm. In addition, the world is balanced by other factors touched upon in the novel, from big city glamour and debauchery to the conservatism of a small college community, to gender roles. Indeed, gender roles is among the most important elements of the novel, as men and women have clearly defined roles and are viewed apart by both society and individuals. Told through the point of view of a male rationalist, women are seen as the subjective and domestic counterparts of working men. It can therefore be read that what upsets the rational, male world order, is not the existence of the supernatural, but the reality that women are the driving forces of society. Our protagonist must, alongside with accepting that witches and their powers are real, accept that women make men's careers and are the driving forces behind the success of individuals and family.

There is a certain element of sexism in the novel, but this is a bi-product of the period, and not the result of misogyny. Leiber was specific with his plotting and writing, and despite a male narrator stating that women are largely irrational, this is an element of plot and character and not a comment by the author, as by the end of the book the reader understands that it is the woman who succeeds in overcoming all the challenges faced by the male narrator, both his academic and supernatural challenges. By the end of the novel, the husband plays the role that the wife has single-handedly devised in order to defeat the evil influences in their lives. During the climactic sequence it is she who is at the forefront of the action, battling the other wives, whereas he is standing well behind her, like a bodyguard watching attentively. The juxtaposition of the novel's opening chapters against this scene is worthy of a close look, as it is clear the husband has consciously given up the role of master of the house which he so firmly and rationally acted on when forcing his wife to do away with her superstitions.

Rather than being sexist, the novel is quite progressive.

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patty Abbott's blog.

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As of 24 December 2015