Colette’s “The Hand” was written during the 1920’s in Paris, a time of personal and sexual liberation for many women. Unlike the more daring and outrageous people of the French art scene, Colette’s protagonist is a young woman who dreams of love, marriage, and happiness in a more traditional and fairytale-like sense. The young wife is overjoyed by her new life with Prince Charming, but is too interested in what she will gain from her marriage instead of contemplating what marriage really entails.
In one night, the protagonist shifts from happiness to disgust upon learning of her husband’s flaws. In doing so, she must question her commitment to her marriage and her true feelings for her husband. The realization of the severity of her new role as a wife overcomes her, and she places her future in jeopardy by deciding whether she is able to tolerate a flawed human being. In the beginning of Colette’s story, the nameless adolescent protagonist lies in bed “too happy to sleep” as she is embraced by her new husband’s strong arms.
Initially, she is truly delighted with her new life and husband, and has yet to come off her cloud nine after the honeymoon. As her older, recently widowed husband lies beside her in bed, the young wife begins to study every inch of him, as if she has never seen him before, or as if she is seeing certain aspects of him for the first time. Her good looking, athletic husband slowly transforms in front of her eyes as she begins to closely scrutinize him. She notices his long eyelashes, tanned skin, and strong arm, and is content in her findings until she reaches the hand.
There is an initial shock when she realizes how big his hand really is. A hand so large belongs to that of a monster, not the man she married, and disgust begins to engross her as she carefully critiques every inch of the beastly hand. As a person’s hands are a window to their past and their current existence. Although the young wife really does not know, the sight of the beastly hand makes her realize that she does not care for who she thinks her husband was and is.
Hands are used in greeting, embracing, and eating, and a hand that was once of proper appearance is no longer fit to touch the young wife in her eyes. Although her husband is attractive and believed to be well-to-do, she is only able to see the red hairs, big veins, and gnarled knuckles of the hand. She is appalled that she let his claw-like fist touched her during their “scandalous existence [as] a honeymoon couple,” and is horrified that she has even once kissed the hand.
A bloom can fall from a rose so quickly, and the young wife’s juvenile and hasty reaction only reveals how immature and fickle she is. While lying in bed with her husband and the apelike hand, the protagonist begins to question his honor and integrity because of his beastly appendages. Although the man may come from some money, he obviously has no sense of decency as their “conjugal romance fell little short of abduction” and he is able to take a child swiftly away from her family a short time after his wife’s death.
The circumstances surrounding his previous wife’s fatality are also questioned because of the hand, as he is seen as having [pleasure as a strangler] while clawing at sheets in his sleep. The young woman was obviously infatuated with her suitor, but was not in love with him as she is able to conjure up horrible thoughts about her bed mate. True love allows one to accept their partner’s faults and look beyond them. Unfortunately the young woman is of an age of limited emotion and attachment. She is able to quickly disengage herself from a man who once gave her so much joy and now see him as an animal she lies on.