The drowned woman and her husband  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The drowned woman and her husband is an anti-feminist story found in Mediaeval jest-books that entered the fable tradition in the 16th century. It was occasionally included in collections of Aesop's Fables but never became established as such and has no number in the Perry Index.

The story

One of the earliest appearances of the story is in the 12th century, when it was included in Marie de France's rhymed fables, the Ysopet, under the title "The man who had a contrary wife" (tale 96). Its most concise telling is in Poggio Bracciolini's Facetiae (1450), where it is titled "The man who searched in the river for his dead wife":

A man, whose wife had drowned in a stream, went up the river against the current to look for the body. A peasant who saw him marvelled greatly at this, and advised him to follow the flow of the current. "In that case", returned the first, "I should never find her, for when she was alive she was always difficult and contrary and went against the ways of others, so I am sure now that she is dead, she will go against the current of the stream."[1] --tr. Edward Storer

The language that Poggio uses is Latin, but there is an English retelling in The Hundred Merry Tales (c.1520) and another in Geoffrey Whitney's Choice of Emblemes (1586). In Italy there had been the elegant Latin verses of Gabriele Faerno's influential Centum Fabulae (1554) and the Italian rhyming version by Giovanni Maria Verdizotti (1570). But the most influential telling of all was Jean de la Fontaine's fable of "The drowned wife" (La femme noyée, III.16) included in his Fables Choisies of 1668. In this he deprecates the anti-feminist trend of the story but uses it as an illustration of how a governing nature persists throughout life 'and even beyond, perhaps'.

La Fontaine begins his account by protesting that he is not among those who use the contemporary French idiom, 'it's nothing, just a woman drowning', referring to those who lazily subscribed to such societal attitudes. At the end he echoes Faerno's conclusion that a person's nature does not change. Poggio's jest book and the English 'Merry Tales', on the other hand, avoid drawing a moral and end on the popular idiom of 'swimming against the current', used of just such characters as the contrary wife is said to be. Apparently the influence of the story has been such that the saying 'She’s so contrary that if she drowned they’d have to look upstream for her' is recorded as still current.

Artistic uses

Pictures of the fable in books for some centuries usually depicted a group of men pointing opposite ways by the stream-side, following the emblematic lead of the German illustrator of Fearno's Centum Fabulae (1590) It was only much later that attention switched to a compassionate view of the drowned woman, as in Gustave Doré's illustration of the fable (above) and Marc Chagall's 1952 etching. These follow in the wake of sympathetic treatments of the subject like the "Ophelia" (1852) of John Everett Millais and "A Christian martyr drowned in the Tiber during the reign of Diocletian[2]" (1855) by Hippolyte Delaroche.

In the 20th century two composers set La Fontaine's words to music. In 1954 Florent Schmitt included it in his Fables sans morales for mixed choir or four soloists (Op. 130). It is also among the four pieces in Isabelle Aboulker's Femmes en fables (1999).




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The drowned woman and her husband" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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