The Story Of Xanthippe by Eugene Field

Story type: Literature


TO THE EDITOR: I am in a great dilemma, and I come to you for counsel. I love and wish to marry a young carpenter who has been waiting on me for two years. My father wants me to marry a literary man fifteen years older than myself,–a very smart man I will admit, but I fancy he is too smart for me. I much prefer the young carpenter, yet father says a marriage with the literary man would give me the social position he fancies I would enjoy. Now, what am I to do? What would you do, if you were I?

Yours in trouble,

Listen, gentle maiden, and ye others of her sex, to the story of Xanthippe, the Athenian woman.

Very, very many years ago there dwelt in Athens a fruit-dealer of the name of Kimon, who was possessed of two daughters,–the one named Helen and the other Xanthippe. At the age of twenty, Helen was wed to Aristagoras the tinker, and went with him to abide in his humble dwelling in the suburbs of Athens, about one parasang’s distance from the Acropolis.

Xanthippe, the younger sister, gave promise of singular beauty; and at an early age she developed a wit that was the marvel and the joy of her father’s household, and of the society that was to be met with there. Prosperous in a worldly way, Kimon was enabled to give this favorite daughter the best educational advantages; and he was justly proud when at the age of nineteen Xanthippe was graduated from the Minerva Female College with all the highest honors of her class. There was but one thing that cast a shadow upon the old gentleman’s happiness, and that was his pain at observing that among all Xanthippe’s associates there was one upon whom she bestowed her sweetest smiles; namely, Gatippus, the son of Heliopharnes the plasterer.

“My daughter,” said Kimon, “you are now of an age when it becomes a maiden to contemplate marriage as a serious and solemn probability: therefore I beseech you to practise the severest discrimination in the choice of your male associates, and I enjoin upon you to have naught to say or to do with any youth that might not be considered an eligible husband; for, by the dog! it is my wish to see you wed to one of good station.”

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Kimon thereupon proceeded to tell his daughter that his dearest ambition had been a desire to unite her in marriage with a literary man. He saw that the tendency of the times was in the direction of literature; schools of philosophy were springing up on every side, logic and poetry were prated in every household. Why should not the beautiful and accomplished daughter of Kimon the fruiterer become one of that group of geniuses who were contributing at that particular time to the glory of Athens as the literary centre of the world? The truth was that, having prospered in his trade, Kimon pined for social recognition; it grieved him that one of his daughters had wed a tinker, and he had registered a vow with Pallas that his other daughter should be given into the arms of a worthier man.

Xanthippe was a dutiful daughter; she had been taught to obey her parents; and although her heart inclined to Gatippus, the son of Heliopharnes the plasterer, she smothered all rebellious emotions, and said she would try to do her father’s will. Accordingly, therefore, Kimon introduced into his home one evening a certain young Athenian philosopher,–a typical literary Bohemian of that time,–one Socrates, a creature of wondrous wisdom and ready wit.

The appearance of this suitor, presumptive if not apparent, did not particularly please Xanthippe. Socrates was an ill-favored young man. He was tall, raw-boned, and gangling. When he walked, he slouched; and when he sat down, he sprawled like a crab upon its back. His coarse hair rebelled upon his head and chin; and he had a broad, flat nose, that had been broken in two places by the kick of an Assyrian mule. Withal, Socrates talked delightfully; and it is not hard to imagine that Xanthippe’s pretty face, plump figure, and vivacious manners served as an inspiration to the young philosopher’s wit. So it was not long ere Xanthippe found herself entertaining a profound respect for Socrates.

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At all events, Xanthippe, the Athenian beauty, was wed to Socrates the philosopher. Putting all thought of Gatippus, the son of Heliopharnes the plasterer, out of her mind, Xanthippe went to the temple of Aphrodite, and was wed to Socrates. Historians differ as to the details of the affair; but it seems generally agreed that Socrates was late at the ceremony, having been delayed on his way to the temple by one Diogenes, who asked to converse with him on the immortality of the soul. Socrates stopped to talk, and would perhaps have been stopping there still had not Kimon hunted him up, and fetched him to the wedding.

A great wedding it was. A complete report of it was written by one of Socrates’ friends, another literary man, named Xenophon. The literary guild, including philosophers by the score, were there in full feather, and Xenophon put himself to the trouble of giving a complete list of these distinguished persons; and to the report, as it was penned for the “Athens Weekly Papyrus,” he appended a fine puff of Socrates, which has led posterity to surmise that Socrates conferred a great compliment on Xanthippe in marrying her. Yet, what else could we expect of this man Xenophon? The only other thing he ever did was to conduct a retreat from a Persian battle-field.

And now began the trials of Xanthippe, the wife of the literary man. Ay, it was not long ere the young wife discovered that, of all husbands in the world, the literary husband was the hardest to get along with. Always late at his meals, always absorbed in his work, always indifferent to the comforts of home–what a trial this man Socrates must have been! Why, half the time, poor Xanthippe did n’t know where the next month’s rent was coming from; and as for the grocer’s and butcher’s bills–well, between this creditor and that creditor the tormented little wife’s life fast became a burden to her. Had it not been for her father’s convenient fruit-stall, Xanthippe must have starved; and, at best, fruit as a regular diet is hardly preferable to starvation. And while she scrimped and saved, and made her own gowns, and patched up the children’s kilts as best she might, Socrates stood around the streets talking about the immortality of the soul and the vanity of human life!

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Many times Xanthippe pined for the amusements and seductive gayeties of social life, but she got none. The only society she knew was the prosy men-folk whom Socrates used to fetch home with him occasionally. Xanthippe grew to hate them, and we don’t blame her. Just imagine that dirty old Diogenes lolling around on the furniture, and expressing his preference for a tub; picking his teeth with his jack-knife, and smoking his wretched cob-pipe in the parlor!

“Socrates, dear,” Xanthippe would say at times, “please take me to the theatre to-night; I do so want to see that new tragedy by Euclydides.”

But Socrates would swear by Hercules, or by the dog, or by some other classic object, that he had an engagement with the rhetoricians, or with the sophists, or with Alcibiades, or with Crito, or with some of the rest of the boys–he called them philosophers, but we know what he meant by that.

So it was toil and disappointment, disappointment and toil, from one month’s end to another’s; and so the years went by.

Sometimes Xanthippe rebelled; but, with all her wit, how could she reason with Socrates, the most gifted and the wisest of all philosophers? He had a provoking way of practising upon her the exasperating methods of Socratic debate,–a system he had invented, and for which he still is revered. Never excited or angry himself, he would ply her with questions until she found herself entangled in a network of contradictions; and then she would be driven, willy-nilly, to that last argument of woman–“because.” Then Socrates–the brute!–would laugh at her, and would go out and sit on the front door-steps, and look henpecked. This is positively the meanest thing a man can do!

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“Look at that poor man,” said the wife of Edippus the cobbler. “I do believe his wife is cruel to him: see how sad and lonesome he is.”

“Don’t play with those Socrates children,” said another matron. “Their mother must be a dreadful shiftless creature to let her young ones run the streets in such patched-up clothes.”

So up and down the street the neighbors gossiped–oh! it was very humiliating to Xanthippe.

Meanwhile Helen lived in peace with Aristagoras the tinker. Their little home was cosey and comfortable. Xanthippe used to go to see them sometimes, but the sight of their unpretentious happiness made her even more miserable. Meanwhile, too, Xanthippe’s old beau, Gatippus, had married; and from Thessaly came reports of the beautiful vineyard and the many wine-presses he had acquired. So Xanthippe’s life became somewhat more than a struggle; it became a martyrdom. And the wrinkles came into Xanthippe’s face, and Xanthippe’s hair grew gray, and Xanthippe’s heart was filled with the bitterness of disappointment. And the years, full of grind and of poverty and of neglect, crept wearily on.

Time is the grim old collector who goes dunning for the abused wife, and Time finally forced a settlement with Socrates.

Having loafed around Athens for many years to the neglect of his family, and having obtruded his views touching the immortality of the soul upon certain folk who believed that the first duty of a man was to keep his family from starving to death, Socrates was apprehended on a bench-warrant, thrown into jail, tried by a jury, and sentenced to die.

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It was in this emergency that the great, the divine nobility of the wife asserted itself. She had been neglected by this man, she had gone in rags for him, she had sacrificed her beauty and her hopes and her pride, she had endured the pity of her neighbors, she had heard her children cry with hunger–ay, all for him; yet, when a righteous fate o’ertook him, she forgot all the misery of his doing, and she went to him to be his comforter.

Well, she could not have done otherwise, for she was a woman.

Where was his philosophy now? where his wisdom, his logic, his wit? What had become of his disputatious and learned associates that not one of them stood up to plead for the life of Socrates now? Why, the first breath of adversity had blown them away as though they were but mist; and, with these false friends scattered like the coward chaff they were, grim old Socrates turned to Xanthippe for consolation.

She burdened his ears with no reproaches, she spoke not of herself. Her thoughts were of him only, and it was to his chilled spirit that she alone ministered. Not even the horrors of the hemlock draught could drive her from his side, or unloose her arms from about his neck; and when at last the philosopher lay stiff in death, it was Xanthippe that bore away his corpse, and, with spices moistened by her tears, made it ready for the grave.

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