‘The Widow’ by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

‘The Widow’ is one of the best stories in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s career-capping At the End of the Century, a collection which takes stories from across her previously published volumes. Anita Desai, in her introduction, rightly says of ‘The Widow’, ‘the voice, the point of view, is so perfectly captured, one would not add or alter a single word for greater effect’. This could perhaps describe the ideal short story; it sums up the perfection to which the form aspires. Here, Durga, a woman still in her prime becomes a widow after her old and impotent husband dies. She quickly finds her relatives become vultures, coveting her house, and prescribing how she should conduct her life. When she becomes enamoured of her tenant’s teenage son, things can only end badly. A triumph of telling over showing – to invert the creative writing maxim – ‘The Widow’ forcefully skewers hypocritical moralising at every turn with its plain, ironic tone: ‘The relatives were glad that Durga had at last come round and accepted her lot as a widow. They were glad for her sake. There was no other way for widows but to lead humble, bare lives: it was for their own good. For if they were allowed to feed themselves on the pleasures of the world, then they fed their own passions too, and that which should have died in them with the deaths of their husbands would fester and boil and overflow into sinful channels’. 

First published in The New Yorker, August 1963. Collected in Like Birds, Like Fishes, and Other Stories, John Murray, 1963, and At the End of the Century, Little, Brown, 2017

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