Analysis of 'The First Sense' by Nadine Gordimer

Which Instrument Does Her Husband Love Best?

Cello on its side.
Image courtesy of Ryan Victory.

Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) was a South African writer whose work often dealt with apartheid and other political and social injustices. She was a close friend of Nelson Mandela and is credited with helping him craft his famous 1964 "I Am Prepared to Die" speech. Three of Gordimer's novels were banned in South Africa even as she gained international literary recognition. In 1991, Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Her story "The First Sense" first appeared in 2006 in The New Yorker, where you can read it for free. 

Plot

Two teenagers meet in a youth orchestra and become romantically involved. The boy, a cello player, shows clear talent. The girl, a flute player, shows less talent, and the boy, to save her from "disillusions," lets her know that she will not be able to have a career in music.

They marry and he becomes a successful cellist while she works a government job to support them. They choose not to have children so that he can pursue his music and she can travel with him. His social circle is the only social circle she has.

When her father is dying, she cannot travel with her husband. When her husband returns, his wife can detect through the way he plays cello that he is having an affair. She does not confront him. Eventually, his playing becomes disharmonious and even angry, and the wife knows the affair is over.

He returns to her an improved lover.

Love Triangles

It is evident early in the story that the husband and wife are part of a love triangle featuring his cello.

Throughout the story, the cello is described in curvy, feminine terms, and the narrator draws comparisons between the way the husband plays cello and the way he makes love.

The cello becomes "his voice, to her," and as he holds the cello close, it shares "the intimacy that was hers." Together, husband and wife laugh off the unwanted advances of "distinguished male guests" toward the wife, just as they protect the cello from potential burglars.

When the husband tells his wife, "The cello is the instrument that I love best," he surely means it literally. Yet, she must also understand that he loves the cello more than he loves her, because she structures her life entirely in service to him and his career. She earns the steady income that keeps them afloat, she doesn't have children, and she allows her entire social circle to be comprised of his professional contacts. Any satisfaction she takes is vicarious.

The wife does not seem to resent that she is -- sorry for the pun -- playing second fiddle to a cello. In fact, there is some indication that their mutual devotion to his success as a cellist actually strengthens their relationship.

When the affair starts, she loses not just her husband, but also (and perhaps more importantly) the cello. He plays cello "to himself, to her -- well, she was in the room those evenings." The "voice" of the cello with which she has been so intimate is no longer addressed to her.

It is "saying something different, speaking not to her but to some other."

Once the affair is over, the wife is relieved not simply to have her husband back, but that the "three of them -- he, she, and the cello against the wall -- were together." He makes love to her "better than ever remembered." Just as his newly acquired cello once "roused in him skilled responses that he hadn't known he had," so, too, apparently, did his new lover.

It is hard to know what to make of this ending. It almost makes it seem as if the affair was beneficial, even though the wife is clearly glad it's over. To understand it better, I think we need to look at what the wife thinks of her own mother.

The Mother

Throughout the story, the wife seems disdainful of her own mother and her mother's ordinary life. She describes growing up watching her mother chat with friends about "female reproductive maladies, from conception to menopause." Later, when the wife decides not to have children of her own, she thinks,

"Let her mother and her teatime friends focus on the hazards of reproduction, contemplating their own navels."

Yet when she makes the decision to have an abortion and not to tell her husband, she's relying on advice she picked up "[e]avesdropping, as an adolescent, on tea parties." And when she assumes that the woman with whom her husband is having the affair must be younger than she is, that, too, is based on wisdom from "her mother's tea-table forum."

The wife wants her life to be extraordinary, but she has settled for supporting the extraordinary life of her husband. When even that becomes reduced to the "shabby ordinary circumstance" of his affair, the wife's vision of herself becomes threatened. Without her intimate, exclusive connection to her husband's cello playing, she risks becoming ordinary (just like her mother, heaven forbid).

So perhaps it is not just the husband who loves the cello best, but also the wife. 

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Sustana, Catherine. "Analysis of 'The First Sense' by Nadine Gordimer." ThoughtCo, Aug. 22, 2016, thoughtco.com/analysis-of-the-first-sense-2990469. Sustana, Catherine. (2016, August 22). Analysis of 'The First Sense' by Nadine Gordimer. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/analysis-of-the-first-sense-2990469 Sustana, Catherine. "Analysis of 'The First Sense' by Nadine Gordimer." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/analysis-of-the-first-sense-2990469 (accessed November 18, 2017).