STUDY GUIDE AND MATERIALS FOR THE SAILOR’S WIFE
BY HELEN BENEDICT
Description: The Sailor's Wife, by Helen Benedict, is a novel set in Greece in 1975, just after the fall of the Colonels' seven-year dictatorship. Joyce Perlman, a naive young woman from a Miami suburb, meets and marries a Greek merchant marine named Nikos. He takes her back to his peasant parents on a remote island, and leaves her there for more than two years, rarely returning.
Joyce finds herself living the merciless life of a Greek peasant woman, at the command of people steeped in religion, misogyny, superstition and their experiences of war. Yet, for the first time in her life, she feels that she has a purpose. She finds the village community, the urgency of farming and the love of her in-laws more rewarding than anything she experienced in what she considers her empty, vacuous life in Florida.
For two years Joyce tries to keep her marriage alive so that she can stay in this new life she loves, but this becomes increasingly difficult. As she learns Greek, she comes to understand Nikos in a way she couldn't when they had no language but love between them, and she does not like what she discovers. And then she meets Alex, a young Englishman on the island to visit his aunt, who represents everything she has given up: modernity, education, freedom, passion.
By following Joyce's struggle to balance duty and love, safety and challenge, ambition and obligation, the novel examines the role of women, the nature of freedom and the tensions between love and independence.
Publisher's Comments: Helen Benedict brilliantly conjures a world of peasants, soldiers, fishermen, and peddlers. The Sailor's Wife is a tour de force, a rare glimpse at an ancient culture peopled with sharply drawn and memorable characters, where a modern woman is plucked from her comfortable American nest and set down in a harsh and primitive environment.
“They meet in a Florida supermarket: Jewish virgin Joyce and gorgeous Greek sailor Nikos. Soon they elope to the Greek island Ifestia, where women are subservient, work is brutal and - with Nikos at sea - Joyce is a slave to her peasant in-laws. Yet Joyce finds her new life oddly comforting, until a young Englishman appears and reminds her of everything she's lost. Can Joyce get her groove back? Grab this surprising novel to find out.” -- Cathi Hannauer ©Glamour, 2000
A girl from the suburbs of Miami marries a Greek sailor in the merchant marine and runs away with him to Ifestia, a remote Mediterranean island, in this vivid... novel by Benedict (Bad Angel). The year is 1975, and 20-year-old Joyce has been living the life of a Greek peasant woman for two years, lodged with her husband Nikos's parents while Nikos is at sea.
Whereas before she painted her toenails and read romances, now she milks goats and sells vegetables at the village market. Her beautiful but spoiled Nikos is gone for months at a time, returning home to complain that Joyce has still given him no son. Joyce, in turn, works hard during the day, suffering the misogyny and superstitions of her adopted home, writhing in lonely desire at night. Yet she finds the rhythms of island life fulfilling, and her in-laws' harsh love more satisfying than the suburban emptiness she knew before. She endures until she meets Alex Gidding, an Englishman with Greek family, and is reminded of the freedoms women enjoy elsewhere. From their first encounter, the novel accelerates, as Joyce struggles to resist Alex's seductions, remain loyal to her new family and, most importantly, define and accept who she is and what she wants. Benedict's prose is
lyrical...: Nikos's muscles ripple "like contented animals," and whitewashed houses resemble melted sugar. Most rewarding is Benedict's description of
Ifestia, which is rendered as simultaneously familiar and strange, populated by a complex people who speak in epic cadences, are filled with conflicting
emotions and are haunted by a bloody national history. -- (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
About the Book:
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography and interview that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Helen Benedict’s The Sailor's Wife
1) Why did Benedict choose the following epigram from “Zorba the Greek”? “I think only people who want to be free are human beings. Women don’t want to be free. Well, is a woman a human being?”
2)What is Benedict saying abut freedom and what it means to the various characters in the book -- Joyce, Dimitra, Petros, Alex, Nikos?
3) Is the reader intended to see Nikos as totally in the wrong, or are there ways in which the reader can understand his point of view?
4) How does Benedict convey the sights, sounds, and smells of Greece?
5) What is Benedict saying about American society?
6) What is Benedict saying about the old ways of village life versus the modern, urban life Joyce knew in America?
7) What does the ending tell us about what Joyce has learned?
8) What is the book saying about the role of women in both ancient and modern societies?
Helen Benedict, the daughter of anthropologists, was born and brought up in England and on various islands in the Indian Ocean. She is the author of two previous novels, Bad Angel(Dutton) and A World Like This (E.P. Dutton), and four works of nonfiction, including Portraits in Print (Columbia Univiversity Press) and Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes (Oxford University Press).
The Sailor's Wife is her third novel and seventh book. Benedict has had stories published most recently in The Antioch Review and The Ontario Review, and essays and book reviews in The Nation, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Women’s Review of Books and US Weekly.
She teaches writing at Columbia University and lives in New York City and Albany County.
Where are you from? How--if at all--has your sense of place colored your writing?
H.B.: I was born in England of American anthropologists, and grew up in England and various islands in the Indian Ocean. This has given me a
life-long affinity with outsiders, and an unusual exposure to the poor and forgotten. This has affected much of my writing and is one of the reasons I wanted to explore peasant life in my new novel, The Sailor's Wife.
When and why did you begin writing? When did you first consider yourself a writer?
H.B.: I began writing in earnest at eight years old, when I wrote my first "novel." I have never stopped since.
Who or what has influenced your writing, and in what way? What books have most influenced your life?
H.B.: The books I read and loved as a child - books by E. Nesbit and C.S. Lewis in particular - made me want to write. As an adult, I have been most affected by George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens: all writers with heart.
What do you think will appeal to readers about this book?
H.B.: The Sailor's Wife will appeal to all kinds of readers because it is so erotic and exotic. Joyce's passion for her husband is deeply felt, and when she finds herself alone on an island filled with handsome young soldiers, the atmosphere becomes even more charged - especially once she meets Alex, a young Englishman on the island to visit his Greek aunt. Also, the description of Greece is very vivid -- you can feel the hot air and ground, and smell the herbs and the sea. The Sailor's Wife is a passionate love story, as well as a detailed description of Greek island culture.
Who is the book aimed at?
H.B.: I’ve written The Sailor's Wife to appeal to men and women of all ages. For young women, it’s a kind of fable of what happens when dreams come only too true. But the older characters in the book, Joyce's in-laws, have lived through war and famine and dictatorship, and their stories appeal to people of all ages and interests.
What themes do you develop in the book?
H.B.: Among the themes I explore in THE SAILOR’S WIFE is the danger women face when they depend too much on love of a man to be their salvation. But I‘m also looking at the nature of freedom. Greek women have fought beside men for freedom ever since Democracy was invented in their country, but in modern times, they fought particularly hard during the Resistance in World War II and during the five-year civil war that followed it. And yet women in Greece didn’t get the vote until 1956, and did not have equal rights under the law or share property equally with their husbands until 1983. It wasn’t until that same year that dowry was banned either, the system of of essentially bribing men to marry one’s daughter by offering land, goods or money to go with her. These facts made me question whose freedom those women fought and died for. And what is the difference between men and women's ideas of freedom? Zorba the Greek says in the novel, “I think only people who want to be free are human beings. Women don’t want to be free. Well, is
a woman a human being?” I wanted to take a hard look at the assumptions in that statement.
What gave you the idea for the book?
H.B.: I got the idea for The Sailor's Wife when I met a young American in Greece who had done what Joyce did - marry a sailor she barely knew and moved in with her peasant in-laws to live a hardscrabble life. But as a journalist I’d also met other women who had fallen for men they didn't really know, moved to other cultures and countries with the romantic idea that love would solve all, only to find themselves virtually enslaved. I was struck by how many women I
hear of - and know - who made this kind of mistake when they were young, and what they might learn by it. They think love will surmount cultures that are brutal to women, and they are usually wrong.
I was also intrigued by the idea of what it would be like for a sheltered American who had lived a comfortable, safe, suburban life to be thrust into
a world where everyone has lived through war, dictatorship and starvation.
The Greeks have had a rough history, even in modern times, fighting with Turkey and Cyprus, dividing between Fascists and Communists. During World War II, Greece was occupied by the Nazis and their allies, and most of the country starved as a result. Then right after the war, the country fell into civil war for five years, brother killing brother, young girls going off to fight in the mountains, and 600,000 Greeks died at one another’s hands. Then in the 1960s and early '70s there was the dictatorship of the Colonols, who often jailed or killed opponents and intellectuals.
Greece is a modern, European country, but its experience has been wildly different from America’s. In The Sailor's Wife, I show how this affects not only Joyce, but also what such hardships have done to her mother and father-in-law. Dimitra, the-mother- in-law, for example, is hardened and toughened by war, but she loves passionately and blindly. Her husband, Petros, is a quiet, kind peasant, but underneath he is a rebel who has nothing but contempt for many Greek traditions and beliefs.
Why did you choose to write about such a different culture?
H.B.: The reason I chose to write about such a different culture is because I think we all learn a lot about ourselves by learning what it's like to be
someone else. I have always explored that in my writing. My first novel, A World Like This, entered the life of a teenage convict. My second, Bad Angel, delved into the experience of a teenage mother from the Dominican Republic. My new novel, The Sailor's Wife makes the reader feel what it would be like to follow a dream, move to a remote island and live the life of an Old Testament peasant -- and explores the joys and trials of such an
Who would you recommend this book for?
H.B.: I’d recommend The Sailor's Wife to anyone who likes to be transported by fiction, who likes romance, and who likes to learn about other people’s
lives, histories, and cultures.