*Disclaimer: I’m writing this up without my notes because I forgot them but decided that I had procrastinated enough on this post. I will go back and edit it.
Conjure Wife, by Fritz Leiber, is at the heart a story about awakening and love all wrapped up in the idea that all women are witches. Really, what more could one ask for?
Norman Saylor is a professor at a small, conservative college that relies on being tight-knit and stuffy. This makes both him and his wife Tansy stick out a bit, but they have just begun to settle into the daily routine of politics and pretend niceties with the other professors and their wives. Normal’s field of study is looking into the psychology and sociology of “primitive cultures”, and how their surroundings have bred the belief into various forms of witchcraft. For Norman, witchcraft is something primitive and irrational, a delusion bred out of hardship and a need to explain the unexplainable.
The novel begins with Norman deciding to go through the feminine mystery that is Tansy’s dressing room. He decides that it is not really a breach of her privacy, but rather a small indiscretion of a curious and loving husband. He believes that he will Tansy about it later, and that given her carefree and mischievous nature, she will laugh about it. However, when going through her drawers, he becomes suspicious. In a box hidden at the back of a dresser drawer he finds packets of hair, nail clippings, and graveyard dirt: all pieces needed for various witchcraft like African hex bags.
When he confronts Tansy about it, she admits to having dabbled in the practices she has helped him collect data on. She tells him that with the move to the college and the unfriendly attitude of the other wives, she decided that a little bit of superstition couldn’t hurt. However, her belief grew the more she dabbled, belief in the protection and belief that the other professors’ wives were also witches trying to sabotage Norman. When asked outright if she believes she is a witch, Tansy admits “Well maybe I am. And maybe it’s lucky for you I’ve been one.”(23) Norman convinces Tansy that this is all a delusion and a neurosis grown out of the strain from moving. Together, the two of them destroy all of the protective charms and other things that Tansy has collected and created over the years.
Almost immediately, strange things begin happening to Norman. He gets accused of having an affair with his secretary, of unfairly flunking a student, and is put under watch because of a party he attended over the break in New York. Furthermore, one of the professor’s finds a paper that could jeopardize some of his work and Norman begins to suspect that a stone dragon from the campus is following him around. Eventually, everything culminates in Norman learning that witchcraft is an open secret among all women, and that the wives of the other professors have captured Tansy’s soul. He has to fight his disbelief in witchcraft in order to save his wife and set his life back on the correct path.
I truly love this book. The craftsmanship from Leiber is evident, and Norman’s struggle to come to terms with witchcraft is a wonderful dialogue throughout the book about how people perceive witchcraft.
Norman believes that witchcraft is a delusion born out of a primitive culture and irrationality. He sees belief in magic a weakness of a people who have not been exposed to science. However, it is hard for him to connect witchcraft to Tansy because in his eyes, she has always been a “better woman”, one who believes in science and is highly rational like himself rather than irrational. It becomes clear that in general Norman finds women to be irrational creatures, prone to flights of fancy as they are “more primitive than men, closer to ancient feelings.”(20) Yet he cannot seem to reconcile this image with his wife with whom he can “reason” with so well.
This struggle between his belief in rational science and the unexplainable things that keep happening to him. What I find fascinating is his complete disregard of most women except for Tansy. Even when Norman allows himself to consider the possibility that all women are witches, he translates it as women protecting their husbands, and of course it would be women because they are more irrational. He creates this image of most women as “glamor-witches, carrying on their savage warfare of death spell and counter charm, while their reality-befuddled husbands went blithely about their business.” (20) Yet as the novel progresses, Norman does admit the personal strength and power that the women have. Witches are just like people, with those out to protect, and those out to gain.
It is this mixture of power and primality that fascinates me. Witches in Conjure Wife are linked to the irrational and the primitive, but at the same time, they are important and protectors. They’re not merely primitive, but connected to something older and powerful that men have never been able to understand. Additionally, all women are witches. All of them. It is a shared secret that has been taught and handed down similarly to knowledge of birthing or menstruating. This concept plays very heavily into the idea of women’s intuition and secrets, a “female space” where these secrets and knowledge are shared for to help all women.
I’m excited for the class to read this book. I think that it will facilitate a lot of discussion about the perceptions behind witches and witchcraft as well as allow the class to look at various forms of witchcraft from other cultures.