Summary, Analysis and Themes of “Say Yes” by Tobias Wolf

“Say Yes” was written in 1985, and is about a husband and wife who disagree on interracial marriage. It can be found in Out Story Begins: New and Selected Stories.

Summary of “Say Yes”

A husband and wife are washing and drying the dishes together. It’s one of the ways he shows how considerate he is. The conversation turns to interracial marriage. The man thinks it’s a bad idea for white people to marry black people.

His wife asks why and takes on a familiar expression that tells him he should stop talking. He never takes the hint. She pauses her dishwashing and repeats the question.

The man says he’s associated with blacks and got along with them fine so he doesn’t want his wife implying he’s racist. She says she’s not implying that, but she wants to know what’s wrong with such a marriage.

He says the cultural differences are too great and they couldn’t really know each other. He claims that most interracial marriages break up. His wife says they could still love each other.

She asks about foreigners and his view is the same—they’re too different. When his wife repeats his words, he dumps the silverware back in the sink, saying they’re still dirty.

When the woman plunges her hand into the water she cuts her thumb and jumps back. The man runs upstairs for some first aid supplies and tends to her cut. He tells her to go relax and hopes she won’t restart the conversation.

She says she can still dry, so they switch jobs. She says he wouldn’t have married her if she’d been black. The man is upset and claims the hypothetical situation is ridiculous because circumstances would have prevented them from meeting or she’d have already been seeing a black guy.

She presses the point further, removing the obstacles he presented. He says she wouldn’t be herself if she were black. She agrees, but insists that he answer if he would marry this hypothetical black version of her if they met and fell in love. He thinks about it and finally admits that he wouldn’t.

She thanks him and goes to the living room where she slowly reads a magazine to show her indifference. In turn, he shows his indifference to her by finishing the dishes and thoroughly cleaning the kitchen.

He takes the garbage out and feels ashamed that he got drawn into an argument. He’s affected emotionally as he thinks about how long a relationship they’ve had and how close they are. He goes out the back gate. There are two dogs eating out of an overturned garbage pail. They leave when they see him coming.

When he goes back inside, he apologizes to his wife through the bathroom door. He say’s he’ll marry her. She tells him to go to bed and he does. She comes out of the bathroom and tells him to turn off the lamp before she comes in. He hears movement and sits up, but can’t see anything. His heart pounds the way it does when he wakes up at night to a noise—the sound of a stranger in the house.

Theme: Knowing Someone

The husband’s argument rests on the claim that a couple from different cultures or backgrounds wouldn’t really know each other.

Interestingly, his wife responds to his claim that “they would never really know each other”, by saying, “Like you know me?” This could just be a simple confirmation of what he’s saying, but it sounds like it could also be a sarcastic rejoinder. She could be saying that he doesn’t know her as well as he thinks, and culture or background have nothing to do with it.

The husband uses his knowledge of his wife’s character to show his indifference to her by thoroughly cleaning the kitchen. It’s not clear if this has the intended effect on her. We’re directly told that her act of showing indifference (slowly reading the magazine) does hurt her husband. As a notable contrast, the narrator doesn’t make any comment on his efforts to return the injury. The “knowledge” he’s gathered in this case could be inaccurate.

The difficulty of knowing someone is pointed out by the narrator when we’re told that his helping with the dishes “was a way he had of showing how considerate he was.” By outward appearances, this is a considerate act, but that’s not his motivation. He wants to look considerate, and this is a way for him to accomplish that. This implies that he has a few things he does to give this impression, but outside of those things, he might not be very considerate at all.

How They Use Their Knowledge

Knowing someone is important, but how that knowledge is used is what has an affect on a relationship.

Before the discussion turns into an argument, he sees the expression his wife gets at times and he “knew he should keep his mouth shut”, but tellingly, “he never did. Actually, it made him talk more.” Here’s an example of knowing someone when that fact does absolutely no good. This tells us they’ve had many avoidable arguments over the years, even though they know each other in some ways.

When his wife reads a magazine, the husband knows she’s too angry to be paying attention to it. She’s really “demonstrating her indifference to him.” She’s doing this with the intention of hurting him, and it does. Here’s an example of using your knowledge of someone for harm rather than good.

1. Is the husband racist?

The husband says a few things that could be interpreted as racist:

  • He immediately gets defensive about being racist when his wife didn’t say he was. (Has this come up before?)
  • He refers to black people as a group, not as individuals, as “they” or “them”, claiming all black people are the same and, thus, different from all white people. (He views himself as better—different—than other men he knows, who would probably be white, because he helps with the housework. He can be different from the others in his group, but black people can’t.)
  • His argument that you can’t truly know someone from a different culture or background is obviously faulty, so it sounds like an excuse rather than a genuine reason.
  • He says if his wife were black she wouldn’t be herself, which is true, but there are any other number of changes that would make her a different person as well. He doesn’t defend his position by pointing out the importance of any other trait or quality to her identity—race seems to be the only deal breaker.
  • He admits that if Ann were black he wouldn’t marry her. There’s no mention of any specific cultural differences that would ruin their relationship. His refusal seems to be based only on skin color.

It can also be argued that the husband isn’t racist:

  • Differences in culture and background could be significant points of contention in a relationship. He could genuinely view this as insurmountable.
  • He refers to statistics that indicate most mixed marriages break up. I don’t know if that’s true, but he could have heard this and believe it, chalking it up to cultural differences.
  • He relents after the argument and says he will marry Ann.

It’s possible I’ve missed something important, but after comparing the two sides, the argument for the husband having some racist feelings looks stronger.

2. What’s the significance of the last scene when the bedroom is dark?

Ending the story with the married couple in the dark could symbolize their alienation. They literally can’t see each other, indicating they don’t know each other as well as they think. The husband’s reaction supports this, as his heart pounds like it did “on their first night together” (when they didn’t know each other as well), and like it does when he thinks there’s a stranger in the house.

It’s also possible to read a refutation of the husband’s premise in this final scene. Really knowing someone might not be the most important thing after all. It’s the mystery of his wife moving in the dark, feeling like she’s a stranger, that excites him.