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Walker portrays the wife in her "fable" as a typical Black woman confronted with her husband's constant use of pornography. At first, she's unsure of her own response to it: is it really a big deal, after all?
She cannot say she is jealous of pictures on a page. That she feels invisible. Rejected. Overlooked. She says instead, to herself: He is right. I will grow up. Adjust. Swim with the tide. (Coming Apart.12)
But she most certainly doesn't swim with the tide, even when her husband tells her, "You're the only black woman in the world that worries about any of this stuff" (Coming Apart.28). Yeah—it turns out that this just isn't true. The wife brings out the works of three womanist writers—Lorde, Teish, and Gardner—as an intellectual body-slam to her husband.
In the process, however, the wife realizes that she, too, is learning things she didn't bargain for and isn't ready to accept. As she reads to her husband about Black men and women who were lynched, and as she makes the connection that the Black woman's body is degraded through pornography, she has to stop her mind from exploring the implications:
It is the fact that the lynching of her body has never stopped that forces the wife, for the time being, to blot out the historical record. She is not prepared to connect her own husband with the continuation of that past. (Coming Apart.57)
Her struggle is painful, for both her and her husband. But she needs her husband to see her for what she is—and not escape into some fantasy that feeds off violence to her body. She needs him to get it because she can't unsee all the things she's read and un-feel all the negative emotions that have plagued her since she found that first porn mag in their apartment.
Walker presents the husband in this story as just a typical guy: his life is made up of work, home, and a little, um, self-pleasuring. We even get our first exposure to his porn use from his POV: to him, porn is no big deal, just a way to unwind. But all this changes when his wife's POV enters the picture. Suddenly, this middle-aged husband has become a source of oppression for Black women everywhere.
His wife has a hard task in reforming his opinion about pornography. He's not at all supportive of her quest to find the words to describe her problem with the industry. In fact, he feels wronged and doomed:
He sees, down the road, the dissolution of the marriage, a constant search for more perfect bodies, or dumber wives. He feels oppressed by her incipient struggle, and feels somehow as if her struggle to change the pleasure he has enjoyed is a violation of his rights. (Coming Apart.36)
Basically, he's throwing a tantrum because he can't have his way with his wife's personhood. This continues for a while—but eventually, he has an "aha!" moment when his wife reads to him about Black women being lynched:
He cannot imagine a woman being lynched. He has never even considered the possibility. Perhaps this is why the image of a black woman chained and bruised excites rather than horrifies him? (Coming Apart.57)
We know what you're thinking: "duh." But remember, this guy has only been thinking of his own sexual pleasure up to this point. By the end of this story, he's going to have another revelation: sexual pleasure is only half as good if you're not connecting with your partner.
He realizes, too, that his "method" of arousal is the result of massive manipulation by the porn and film industries—and that his whole conception of himself has nothing to do with self-determination. He's basically a product of what a bunch of white executives have determined he should be:
He begins to feel sick. For he realizes that he has bought some if not all of the advertisements about women, black and white. And further, inevitably, he has bought the advertisements about himself. (Coming Apart.69)
Yeah. And these are not flattering images of Black men or women. In the end, Mr. Man has some serious work to do to set himself free from these harmful fantasies and save his relationship with his clever wife.