‘Today A Woman Went Mad in The Supermarket’ by Hilma Wolitzer

The exhausting, unrelenting burden of motherhood is brought out brilliantly in this story, in which a woman with two small kids has a meltdown in a supermarket aisle. A bystander, a pregnant woman, tries to soothe her. 

‘Excuse me,’ I said tentatively, hesitant and self-protective as only a woman expecting her first child can be, ‘Pardon me, could I just get through,’… She gripped the handle of her empty cart and said, ‘There is no end to it.’ It was spoken so simply and undramatically, but with such honest conviction that for a moment I thought she was referring to the aisle of the supermarket. Perhaps it was blocked ahead of us, and she couldn’t move up farther. But then she said, ‘I have tried and tried, and there is no end to it. Ask Harold. Ask anybody, ask my mother.’

The woman gets more and more distressed, and other people, including the store manager, get involved. Eventually, the woman’s husband turns up, grabs her arm and bundles her off, and the narrator finds her empty pocket book on top of her own in her empty trolley.

We understand the feelings of both women in this story, and Wolitzer captures the narrator’s own confusion, helplessness and distress: ‘When my husband came home from work I was sitting in the bathtub and weeping.’

I was instantly drawn to this book because of its title and cover. The childlike lower-case font and the cheerful yellow jacket cover are playful yet intriguingly deceptive. Wolitzer dissects American suburbia with wit and bite. These ironical stories are poignant, funny and leave a lot unsaid. She famously asserted in an interview that “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as ordinary life. I think all life is extraordinary.” These are domestic dramas set typically in the 60s and 70’s America and they shed light on the status of woman as wife, mother and individual. She is never preachy or judgmental but leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusion. Wolitzer has a light, breezy conversational style of writing that presents the anecdotal vignettes of daily life but hints at the darker turbulence beneath. 

First published in the Saturday Evening Post, March 1966, and available to read here. Collected in Today a Woman Went Mad in The Supermarket, Bloomsbury, 2021

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