A Natural Obstacle by August Strindberg

Her father had insisted on her learning book-keeping, so that she might escape the common lot of young womanhood; to sit there and wait for a husband.

She was now employed as book-keeper in the goods department of the Railways, and was universally looked upon as a very capable young woman. She had a way of getting on with people, and her prospects were excellent.

Then she met the green forester from the School of Forestry and married him. They had made up their minds not to have any children; theirs was to be a true, spiritual marriage, and the world was to be made to realise that a woman, too, has a soul, and is not merely sex. Husband and wife met at dinner in the evening. It really was a true marriage, the union of two souls; it was, of course, also the union of two bodies, but this is a point one does not discuss.

One day the wife came home and told her husband that her office hours had been changed. The directors had decided to run a new night train to Malmo, and in future she would have to be at her office from six to nine in the evening. It was a nuisance, for he could not come home before six. That was quite impossible.

Henceforth they had to dine separately and meet only at night. He was dissatisfied. He hated the long evenings.

He fell into the habit of calling for her. But he found it dull to sit on a chair in the goods department and have the porters knocking against him. He was always in the way. And when he tried to talk to her as she sat at her desk with the penholder behind her ear, she interrupted him with a curt:

“Oh! do be quiet until I’ve done!”

Then the porters turned away their faces and he could see by their backs that they were laughing.

Sometimes one or the other of her colleagues announced him with a:

“Your husband is waiting for you, Mrs. X.”

“Your husband!” There was something scornful in the very way in which they pronounced the word.

But what irritated him more than anything else was the fact that the desk nearest to her was occupied by a “young ass” who was always gazing into her eyes and everlastingly consulting the ledger, bending over her shoulders so that he almost touched her with his chin. And they talked of invoices and certificates, of things which might have meant anything for all he knew. And they compared papers and figures and seemed to be on more familiar terms with one another than husband and wife were. And that was quite natural, for she saw more of the young ass than of her husband. It struck him that their marriage was not a true spiritual marriage after all; in order to be that he, too, would have had to be employed in the goods department. But as it happened he was at the School of Forestry.

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One day, or rather one night, she told him that on the following Saturday a meeting of railway employes, which was to conclude with a dinner, would be held, and that she would have to be present. Her husband received the communication with a little air of constraint.

“Do you want to go?” he asked naively.

“Of course, I do!”

“But you will be the only woman amongst so many men, and when men have had too much to drink, they are apt to become coarse.”

“Don’t you attend the meetings of the School of Forestry without me?”

“Certainly, but I am not the only man amongst a lot of women.”

“Men and women were equals, she was amazed that he, who had always preached the emancipation of women could have any objection to her attending the meeting.”

“He admitted that it was nothing but prejudice on his part. He admitted that she was right and that he was wrong, but all the same he begged her not to go; he hated the idea. He couldn’t get over the fact.”

“He was inconsequent.”

“He admitted that he was inconsequent, but it would take ten generations to get used to the new conditions.”

“Then he must not go to meetings either?”

“That was quite a different matter, for his meetings were attended by men only. He didn’t mind her going out without him; what he didn’t like was that she went out alone with so many men.”

“She wouldn’t be alone, for the cashier’s wife would be present as–“

“As what?”

“As the cashier’s wife.”

“Then couldn’t he be present as her husband?”

“Why did he want to make himself so cheap by being in the way?”

“He didn’t mind making himself cheap.”

“Was he jealous?”

“Yes! Why not? He was afraid that something might come between them.”

“What a shame to be jealous! What an insult! What distrust! What did he think of her?”

“That she was perfect. He would prove it. She could go alone!” “Could she really? How condescending of him!”

She went. She did not come home until the early hours of the morning. She awakened her husband and told him how well it had all gone off. He was delighted to hear it. Somebody had made a speech about her; they had sung quartets and ended with a dance.

“And how had she come home?”

“The young ass had accompanied her to the front door.”

“Supposing anybody who knew them had seen her at three o’clock in the morning in the company of the young ass?”

“Well, and what then? She was a respectable woman.”

“Yes, but she might easily lose her reputation.”

“Ah! He was jealous, and what was even worse, he was envious. He grudged her every little bit of fun. That was what being married meant! To be scolded if one dared to go out and enjoy oneself a little. What a stupid institution marriage was! But was their union a true marriage? They met one another at night, just as other married couples did. Men were all alike. Civil enough until they were married, but afterwards, oh! Afterwards…. Her husband was no better than other men: he looked upon her as his property, he thought he had a right to order her about.”

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“It was true. There was a time when he had believed that they belonged to one another, but he had made a mistake. He belonged to her as a dog belonged to its master. What was he but her footman, who called for her at night to see her home? He was ‘her husband.’ But did she want to be ‘his wife’? Were they equals?”

“She hadn’t come home to quarrel with him. She wanted to be nothing but his wife, and she did not want him to be anything but her husband.”

The effect of the champagne, he thought, and turned to the wall.

She cried and begged him not to be unjust, but to–forgive her.

He pulled the blankets over his ears.

She asked him again if he–if he didn’t want her to be his wife any more?

“Yes, of course, he wanted her! But he had been so dreadfully bored all the evening, he could never live through another evening like it.”

“Let them forget all about it then!”

And they forgot all about it and continued loving one another.

On the following evening, when the green forester came for his wife, he was told that she had gone to the store rooms. He was alone in the counting-house and sat down on a chair. Presently a glass door was opened and the young ass put in his head: “Are you here, Annie?”

No, it was only her husband!

He rose and went away. The young ass called his wife Annie, and was evidently on very familiar terms with her. It was more than he could bear.

When she came home they had a scene. She reproached him with the fact that he did not take his views on the emancipation of women seriously, otherwise he could not be annoyed at her being on familiar terms with her fellow-clerks. He made matters worse by admitting that his views were not to be taken seriously.

“Surely he didn’t mean what he was saying! Had he changed his mind? How could he!”

“Yes, he had changed his mind. One could not help modifying one’s views almost daily, because one had to adapt them to the conditions of life which were always changing. And if he had believed in spiritual marriages in the days gone by, he had now come to lose faith in marriages of any sort whatever. That was progress in the direction of radicalism. And as to the spiritual, she was spiritually married to the young ass rather than to him, for they exchanged views on the management of the goods department daily and hourly, while she took no interest at all in the cultivation of forests. Was there anything spiritual in their marriage? Was there?”

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“No, not any longer! Her love was dead! He had killed it when he renounced his splendid faith in–the emancipation of women.”

Matters became more and more unbearable. The green forester began to look to his fellow-foresters for companionship and gave up thinking of the goods department and its way of conducting business, matters which he never understood.

“You don’t understand me,” she kept on saying over and over again.

“No, I don’t understand the goods department,” he said.

One night, or rather one morning, he told her that he was going botanising with a girls’ class. He was teaching botany in a girls’ school.

“Oh! indeed! Why had he never mentioned it before? Big girls?”

“Oh! very big ones. From sixteen to twenty.”

“H’m! In the morning?”

“No! In the afternoon! And they would have supper in one of the outlying little villages.”

“Would they? The head-mistress would be there of course?”

“Oh! no, she had every confidence in him, since he was a married man. It was an advantage, sometimes, to be married.”

On the next day she was ill.

“Surely he hadn’t the heart to leave her!”

“He must consider his work before anything else. Was she very ill?”

“Oh! terribly ill!”

In spite of her objections he sent for a doctor. The doctor declared that there was nothing much the matter; it was quite unnecessary for the husband to stay at home. The green forester returned towards morning. He was in high spirits. He had enjoyed himself immensely! He had not had such a day for a long, long time.

The storm burst. Huhuhu! This struggle was too much for her! He must swear a solemn oath never to love any woman but her. Never!

She had convulsions; he ran for the smelling salts.

He was too generous to give her details of the supper with the schoolgirls, but he could not forego the pleasure of mentioning his former simile anent dogs and possession, and he took the occasion to draw her attention to the fact that love without the conception of a right to possession–on both sides–was not thinkable. What was making her cry? The same thing which had made him swear, when she went out with twenty men. The fear of losing him! But one can lose only that which one possesses! Possesses!

Thus the rent was repaired. But goods department and girls’ school were ready with their scissors to undo the laborious mending.

The harmony was disturbed.

The wife fell ill. She was sure that she had hurt herself in lifting a case which was too heavy for her. She was so keen on her work that she could not bear to wait while the porters stood about and did nothing. She was compelled to lend a hand. Now she must have ruptured herself.

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Yes, indeed, there was something the matter!

How angry she was! Angry with her husband who alone was to blame. What were they going to do with the baby? It would have to be boarded out! Rousseau had done that. It was true, he was a fool, but on this particular point he was right.

She was full of fads and fancies. The forester had to resign his lessons at the girls’ school at once.

She chafed and fretted because she was no longer able to go into the store rooms, but compelled to stay in the counting-house all day long and make entries. But the worst blow which befell her was the arrival of an assistant whose secret mission it was to take her place when she would be laid up.

The manner of her colleagues had changed, too. The porters grinned. She felt ashamed and longed to hide herself. It would be better to stay at home and cook her husband’s dinner than sit here and be stared at. Oh! What black chasms of prejudice lay concealed in the deceitful hearts of men!

She stayed at home for the last month, for the walk to and from her office four times a day was too much for her. And she was always so hungry! She had to send out for sandwiches in the morning. And every now and then she felt faint and had to take a rest. What a life! A woman’s lot was indeed a miserable one.

The baby was born.

“Shall we board it out?” asked the father.

“Had he no heart?”

“Oh! yes, of course he had!”

And the baby remained at home.

Then a very polite letter arrived from the head office, enquiring after the young mother’s health.

“She was very well and would be back at the office on the day after to-morrow.”

She was still a little weak and had to take a cab; but she soon picked up her strength. However, a new difficulty now presented itself. She must be kept informed of the baby’s condition; a messenger boy was despatched to her home, at first twice a day, then every two hours.

And when she was told that the baby had been crying, she put on her hat and rushed home at once. But the assistant was there, ready to take her place. The head clerk was very civil and made no comment.

One day the young mother discovered accidentally that the nurse was unable to feed the baby, but had concealed the fact for fear of losing her place. She had to take a day off in order to find a new foster mother. But they were all alike; brutal egoists every one of them, who took no interest in the children of strangers. No one could ever depend on them.

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“No,” agreed the husband, “in a case of this sort one can only depend on oneself.”

“Do you mean to insinuate that I ought to give up my work?”

“Oh! You must do as you like about that!”

“And become your slave!”

“No, I don’t mean that at all!”

The little one was not at all well; all children are ill occasionally. He was teething! One day’s leave after another! The poor baby suffered from toothache. She had to soothe him at night, work at the office during the day, sleepy, tired, anxious, and again take a day off.

The green forester did his best and carried the baby about in his arms half the night, but he never said a word about his wife’s work at the goods department.

Nevertheless she knew what was in his mind. He was waiting for her to give in; but he was deceitful and so he said nothing! How treacherous men were! She hated him; she would sooner kill herself than throw up her work and “be his slave.”

The forester saw quite clearly now that it was impossible for any woman to emancipate herself from the laws of nature; under present circumstances, he was shrewd enough to add.

When the baby was five months old, it was plainly evident that the whole thing would before very long repeat itself.

What a catastrophe!

But when that sort of thing once begins….

The forester was obliged to resume his lessons at the girls’ school to augment their income, and now–she laid down her arms.

“I am your slave, now,” she groaned, when she came home with her discharge.

Nevertheless she is the head of the house, and he gives her every penny he earns. When he wants to buy a cigar he makes a long speech before he ventures to ask for the money. She never refuses it to him, but all the same he finds the asking for it unpleasant. He is allowed to attend meetings, but no dinners, and all botanising with girls is strictly forbidden. He does not miss it much, for he prefers playing with his children.

His colleagues call him henpecked; but he smiles, and tells them that he is happy in spite of it, because he has in his wife a very sweet and sensible companion.

She, on her part, obstinately maintains that she is nothing but his slave, whatever he might say to the contrary. It is her one comfort, poor, little woman!

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