Monday, July 9, 2012

The Marriage Plot

I'm reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (about which there will be more to come). I don't usually pay much attention to recent fiction and it is a rare thing when I read any "serious" novel published in the last sixty years. I got hooked after reading this post on a blog I really like by Fred Kaffenberger.

Reading his post my immediate reaction was to respectfully disagree about ... well, just about everything. Respectfully disagree because Kaffenberger is the sort of guy who deserves respect. Reading him for a few years now, I don't think he has made a single unfair or unmeasured comment about anyone; a far better record than my own.

But, as I say, I read his post and particularly this bit,
Perhaps the decline of marriage was already indicated by the marriage plot itself: that odd 19th Century fantasy that happiness and marriage are conterminous: to be happy is to be married, and to be married is to be happy. Such a confusion puts impossible demands on marriage, and short circuits the search for happiness.
and thought, "That's just wrong".

Part of the problem is that there is something very right about what he says and I will get to that at the bottom.

But first this: the notion that happiness and marriage are coterminous isn't a particularly 19th century thing. If anyone is to blame for such things it is the 20th century and Walt Disney would have to be near the top of the list of indicted conspirators.

I can only gesture at the main points here because it would be a long argument (probably a whole book) to do otherwise, but the key element of the great 18th and 19th century novels was that they recognized just how hard a thing marriage was to achieve. Whether you accept the premise or not, the proof that Elizabeth and Darcy would be happy is not that they are now married but that they both showed such virtue on the path to marriage. When we get to the end, we can say, "Now that we have seen what it took them to get there, we can see that they have what it takes to make their marriage work".

One of the really fascinating things about the classic marriage plot is how determinedly it isolates its two principals. This is true even in the sillier fiction. To take one of my favourite examples, in Ann Radcliffe's The Italian, the female lover Ellena, is kidnapped by the evil villain and held in a series of remote locations and then, just when the male lover, Vivaldi, sets her free, he, in turn, is arrested by the Inquisition. Melodramatic? Perhaps but the point is each character is forced to face individual challenges.

And Pride and Prejudice isn't that much different. A series of obstacles (not the least of which is their disdain for one another) keep the characters away from one another and it is what they each do isolation that wins the day. Again, you can question whether the tests are the right ones but the novel doesn't make marriage and happiness coterminous. Elizabeth and Darcy may well be happier than they otherwise might have been had they not connected but the novel leaves us little doubt that both have the virtues to obtains such happiness as is possible in this world even if they had ended up single.

And it is worth remembering that Austen herself never married and yet she remains, even today, the single greatest writer of the marriage plot in novel form. That she believed in a form of happiness she never attained is important.

As I said above, while what Fred Kaffenberger has to say about the 19th century strikes me as unfair when applied to that period but it is absolutely true when applied to our own time. Consider Kathryn Jean Lopez. I can't find the original piece online so I can only refer you to a piece in which she is quoted but take a look at what Lopez had to say about The Bachelor:
But for what it was, it wasn’t too bad. Marriage doesn’t often get an endorsement like it on primetime television, with young people who claim to want “true love” and marriage. And they’re doing more handholding and talking, too, than jumping in and out of bed to find it. . . .

If you were among the 18.2 million Bachelor viewers and then turned on ER or Greta or went to sleep, or otherwise got on with your life, I’m not sure you didn’t walk away with a decent feeling about marriage. “The Bachelor” has a point when he defends the whole concept: “People have met in stranger ways. If the right person for you is in a certain place, even on an incredibly crazy show like this, you’ve got to take the chance.”
That folks is the "conservative" view.  The point here is not that Lopez grudgingly gives (very) limited praise to a trivial and trashy show. No, the problem is that Lopez accepts the silly premise—she thinks the challenge of marriage is finding and meeting the right person. The difference between Lopez's version of marriage and The Bachelor's version is a lot like the difference between the high class call girl and the hooker on the street; although one is cleaner, neater and more concerned with propriety and discretion than the other, they are both whores in the final analysis.

Eliminate all the cheap voyeurism and shoddy exploitation of publicity sluts that goes with The Bachelor and look at what Lopez thinks marriage is about: people who want true love and and are trying to find it. There is the fairytale in which marriage and happiness are coterminous in all its glory.

The problem with this is that you are surrounded by right people. There are millions of wonderful women and men in the world. And they are all around you: you see them at school, at work in your neighbourhood. Finding them is easy and meeting them them is only a little bit harder.

And you'll note that the question that is conspicuously absent here is any wondering on anyone's part about whether they are the right sort of person. The marriage plot as it is promoted today is about whether some silly little narcissist can find person that is right for them. Much as women's magazines perennially promise a swimsuit that is right for every shape, the modern marriage plot assumes that there is a right person out there for every girl. That a woman has to do a lot of hard work to look good in any swimsuit, no matter how "flattering", is brushed away. Marriage also requires a lot of hard work to make yourself into someone marriageable.

In Austen or Shakespeare, the obstacles that stand in the way of true love are more than occasions for drama. They are tests of the virtue of the lovers. They, on the other hand, take it as relatively easy to to fall in love. It says something, and nothing good, about our era that we see the point as finding the person you'll always be able to love.

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