The nagging wife is the universal villain of married life. From the earliest pages of human history there is perhaps no literature and folk tradition where the character of the nagging wife is not found widely. Along with the sacrificing mother, forsaken lover, tragic hero and evil lord, the nagging wife will be found in all societies and cultures at all times in history. Even in today’s world, irrespective of the differences of race, wealth, religion, culture, language and social reform, the character of the nagging wife is universal. She keeps popping up in jokes, films, songs, novels and other cultural cultural creations.
Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher, is supposed to have had a nagging wife who drove him to spend his time in the city squares and gymnasia, much to the benefit of philosophy. The figure of the nagging wife finds mention in the Bible, (indirectly) in the Quran and is a crucial moment in the story of the Ramayana. She is to be found in renassaince Italy, in medieval England, on the expanding border of America’s “wild west”, in the bedrooms of colonial India and in the sit-coms of post-modern Europe.
What is interesting about this figure of the nagging wife is that it is one of those few characters who transcend history. Like the sacrificing mother, the unrequited lover or the tragic hero, the nagging wife can be found in ancient, slave owning agricultural societies, in prosperous trading medieval ones and in post-industrial wastelands of contemporary West. What is it about the nagging wife which makes this character so universal and transcendental?
Before we explore this question, it would be necessary to make one caveat. Literary and cultural archetypes are almost always caricatures and stereotypes of the real people who live within those societies. Despite this they are based on a certain reality of experience. In the case of the character of the nagging wife, there is enough reason to accept that it is grossly stereotyped and caricatured since all societies we live in are inherently patriarchal and female figures, specially those in relations of contestation with men, would not be represented without malafide distortions. Yet, despite all the caricatures and mis-representations, it would also be difficult to argue that nagging wives do not have a reference in reality. This is not to say that wives always nag or that nagging is a central aspect of their relation. But the fact that nagging, and specifically the nagging wife, has survived much of recorded history attests to the reality of its experience.
The most common explanation of nagging rests on psychology and its related idea of “human nature”. People accept nagging, specially from wives, as an unavoidable feature of the married condition. This brings us to the first real basis for the origin and continued existence of nagging.
Nagging, as a form of inter-personal interaction, is confined within the walls of the institution of marriage. Throughout history, marriage has been largely structured around female monogamy. This means that women have only one husband. Men have, depending on the historical, cultural and economic context, one or more wives. But women, irrespective of historical context, have only ever been allowed one husband. There have been family forms which have group marriage and polyandry, but these are to be found, almost without exception, outside the boundaries of civilised society. So the first condition for existence of the nagging wife is the marriage with strict monogamy for the wife.
Families which have grown out of such monogamous marriages have also, invariably, been patriarchal families. This means that power inside the family rests with the paterfamilias – husband, father, head. The husband owns, not only, the economic assets of the family but also the name and lineage. The wife has historically been powerless in this relation. She has had only two crutches to hold on to. One is her indispensability as the progenitor of the lineage. She has the womb which births the sons who will inherit the name and property of the family. It is this attribute of the wife which gives her some leverage within the family. Her son is her defender inside the family. The second crutch for a wife inside a partriarchal family is the relations of love and attachment that may get built up. As would be evident, the first of these two crutches is of greater resilience while love and attachment are notoriously effervescent.
This condition of the wife has remained largely constant over history. Whichever the country or region, whichever time in history, the family has been based on a patriarchal, monogamous (for the wife) marriage where the wife is totally dependent on the head of the family who is her husband.
It is this utter powerlessness of the wife which is the source of nagging. The dictionary defines the word “nag” as “To annoy by constant scolding, complaining, or urging.” Bereft of economic, physical or political power, women only had words to defend themselves. They have had to walk the thin line between nagging enough to get their point across and nagging which got them thrown out of the house or beaten or worse, killed. Nagging was the only weapon the wife had, whose constant grating could cut some of the bonds of oppression under which she lived. By its very nature of being constant and repetitive, nagging also becomes unbearable for the person it is directed towards – the husband. If the woman has been a prisoner of the patriarchal cage, her constant scratching at its prison bars with her nagging words, has been her husband’s scourge. Marx’s famous saying about nations, ““any nation that oppresses another, forges its own chains”, can easily be transposed in this context to argue that any human who oppresses another forges his own chains (of nagging).
It is not only the wife who deploys this weapon of the weak. Children use it to excellent effect. In that context (parent – child) it is not generally called nagging but rather ‘pestering’. It too emerges from a similar context of powerlessness of children within the family, where the only way for them to get their point across is to ‘pester’ their parents till they accept defeat. Today, the power of children to pester their parents into taking decisions is an important weapon in the arsenal of advertisers who use “pester-power” to sell everything from groceries to cars.
In the contemporary world, many families have moved out of the context under which nagging by wives exists. Women own property, often they are in positions of power and are effective decision makers. Nagging does not automatically end in these contexts, just like it does not automatically exist in all patriarchal families. Today nagging is not necessarily confined to the patriarchal family and has been, in a sense, freed from the context of the patriarchal family under which it originated and survived. It has become a cultural archetype which women (and men) absorb into their personalities in the process of socialisation. Where it exists outside the immediate context of the patriarchal family, it exists only as a weapon of offence and not as a survival skill of the weak wife and it “forges its own chains” for those who deploy it in inter-personal relations. The question arises, are we courageous enough to surrender this weapon?
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This was published in my weekly column in The Post on 27 August, 2008.