Is marriage necessary?
The answer to this question depends on both ‘to whom?’ and ‘for what?’ To society, marriage usually implies households and births, which tend to be the building blocks of social stability.
So largely, a good thing.
To practical-minded individuals, marriage usually means cooperation, companionship, and tax cuts, so in general, also a good thing.
Has marriage always been based on love?
But the notion of a ‘one man, one woman’ union is in fact relatively ‘modern’: the word ‘marriage’ apparently first appeared in around 1250 – 1300, and it wasn’t until after Romanticism (1850s onwards) that people actually started marrying for love.
For most of human history, men as hunters and women as gatherers largely partnered for pragmatic purposes (foraging for food, continuing bloodlines, rearing children, protecting communities etc.); there was technically no need for the institutionalisation of such a partnership.
Nowadays, most people (at least those in the developed world) have considerably higher standards for marriage. Attraction is a bare minimum, and love – nebulous as it is – is almost a de facto requirement. There are, of course, those who would marry for purely practical reasons (wealth or power), but for the average Joe and Jill, the desire to marry someone almost always stems from affection and love.
Not so the case for earlier generations. In the not-so-distant past, women often married out of social obligation. A good husband would be a reliable breadwinner and a responsible husband and father; whether the wife loved him or not was immaterial to nuptial considerations. Unlike today, marriage was not an individualistic pursuit, but a social partnership. Wives and husbands were more like intimate colleagues than romantic soulmates. (Then again, I’m sure this applies to many 21st century couples, too.)
But there’s a limit to how long people can hold up appearances, and no unhappy couple – regardless of the era in which they live – can forever paper over the cracks of an unfulfilling marriage.
One of my favourite portrayals of a loveless marriage is Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), which tells the tragic story of Emma Bovary, a French woman married to a boring doctor whom she doesn’t love. Emma eventually has a string of passionate but short-lived affairs, only to realise that her ultimate liberation lies in death, because even that would be better than waking up every morning next to someone she has no feelings for.
Back in the 19th century, the idea of a married woman committing both adultery and suicide would have offended the public’s moral sensibilities, and indeed, Flaubert was prosecuted for writing the novel (but was acquitted afterwards).
Introducing Kate Chopin: a writer way ahead of her time
Half a century later across the Atlantic, Kate Chopin, a Louisiana Creole writer, widow and mother of six, would publish a novella on a similar topic – but from the refreshing perspective of a young, vivacious wife from the American South.
The novella, titled The Awakening (1899), chronicles the marriage of Edna Pontellier, who appears to live the poster life of domestic bliss, being married to a successful businessman with two sons. But deep down, Edna feels hollow and unfulfilled, and after a family holiday on Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico, she meets and falls in love with a younger man named Robert Lebrun.
While her affections are reciprocated by Lebrun, both characters understand that their love has no place in the traditional society of late 19th century New Orleans, where wives and mothers are supposed to, above all, “think of the children”. Unable to bear a life weighed down by moral shackles, Edna kills herself at the end.
When Chopin published The Awakening, critics were divided between moralists and liberals, with the former camp berating Chopin for “promoting unholy imaginations and unclean desires”, and the latter celebrating her for delivering “an emancipation of the whole being from the trammels of conventionalism”.
The novella never really took off in Chopin’s own time, and after being out of print for many decades, it experienced a sudden revival in the 1970s, when second wave feminism was at its height and many earlier ‘proto-feminist’ works were reintroduced to the public.
An unlikely, but great, companion text
A less well-known, but surprisingly appropriate, comparative text to The Awakening on the issue of love / lovelessness in marriage is the British author L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between (1953).
Narrated from the retrospective view of a 13-year-old boy, the novel presents the doomed, secret relationship between Marian Maudsley, the daughter of a wealthy, upper-class family in Norfolk, and Ted Burgess, a rough, lower-class tenant farmer living on the Maudsley family’s land. While the expectation is for Marian to marry Lord Trimingham, the Viscount whose noble clan owns Brandham Hall – the Maudsleys’ home, Marian herself loves Burgess and feels no affection for Trimingham.
But because she’s aware that marriage has very little to do with true love, she is content with marrying Trimingham as a fulfilment of both her familial and social duty.
Unlike Chopin’s Edna Pontellier, however, Marian Maudsley is pragmatist. Rather than committing suicide like Edna, Marian marries the Viscount (after her lover, Burgess, kills himself), because she sees and accepts the distinction between romance and marriage – while love is necessary in the former, it is not always required in the latter.
In this post, then, let’s explore the psychology of two female characters trapped in a loveless marriage (or the prospect of one), all the while harbouring strong passions for another man they can never really be with in the long run.
Reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: “A bird with a broken wing”
One of the key questions posed by Chopin’s Awakening is this: does a woman’s ‘personal responsibility’ change upon becoming a wife and a mother?
To put it more bluntly, who does a woman live for?
Does she live for herself, or does she live primarily for her husband and children?
And if a woman one days decides that she no longer wants to prioritise her husband and children above her own interests, does that then make her a moral or social failure?
Early on in the novella, we see clear signs that the protagonist Edna Pontellier is not cut out for marriage or motherhood. She doesn’t understand why her husband, Leonce, would begrudge her for their children’s fever, and after a particularly fiery argument between husband and wife one night, Leonce walks out in a huff, leaving Edna behind in the house. The wife then carries out a symbolic act of crushing her wedding band under her heel – but not before Chopin sets up the fundamentals for atmospheric contrast by describing the idyllic impression of the family room –
It was a large, beautiful room, rich and picturesque in the soft, dim light which the maid had turned low. She went and stood at an open window and looked out upon the deep tangle of the garden below. All the mystery and witchery of the night seemed to have gathered there amid the perfumes and the dusky and tortuous outlines of flowers and foliage.
While the outward signs are of tranquility, bliss and abundance, the inner emotions of Edna are anything but: “the deep tangle of the garden below” and those “tortuous outlines of flower and foliage” are a symbolic projection of Edna’s conflicted, tortured feelings about her equally conflicted, torturing identities.
She is a wife committed to a loveless marriage (“Her marriage to Leonce Pontellier was purely an accident”), a mother stuck in a reluctant position, and a woman trapped in a spiritual bind, bound above all by a wedding band that she’ll go on to crush.
As the passage goes on –
But the voices were not soothing that came to her from the darkness and the sky above and the stars. They jeered and sounded mournful notes without promise, devoid even of hope. She turned back into the room and began to walk to and fro down its whole length, without stopping, without resting. She carried in her hands a thin handkerchief, which she tore into ribbons, rolled into a ball, and flung from her. Once she stopped, and taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it lying there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But her small boot hell did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet.
The significance of this moment isn’t in the frustration or anger of Edna’s crushing of her ring, but in the fact that she could “not make an indenture [or] a mark upon the little glittering circlet”. This implies that in Edna’s world, personal desires have virtually no bearing on the social persona that women (and men, to be fair) are expected to inhabit. If you’re a wife and a mother, wifehood and motherhood should consume the entirety of your selfhood. The natural, pre-marital self is supposed to fade away with the assumption of these domestic selves.
Yet Edna isn’t one to just take it on the chin. Her discontent towards imposed domesticity and her desire for a life beyond the household prove at once overwhelming and destructive, which is presaged by what she does immediately afterwards –
In a sweeping passion she seized a glass vase from the table and flung it upon the tiles of the hearth. She wanted to destroy something. The crash and clatter were what she wanted to hear.
Stifled by the artificiality of domestic bliss, Edna craves the humanity of chaos and destruction. The too-perfectness of everything is beginning to suffocate her, and by falling in love with Robert Lebrun, she realises that it’s only a matter of time before she’ll unleash her natural self, and in turn, “destroy something [with] the crash and clatter” that’s so foreshadowing of Edna’s ultimate self-destruction.
At this stage, however, maintaining appearances is the priority of a respectable wife, and so Edna continues to deceive herself and those around her, putting on a ticking-bomb of a pretense (until, of course, it eventually explodes at the end of the novella) –
A maid, alarmed at the din of breaking glass, entered the room to discover what was the matter.
“A vase fell upon the hearth,” said Edna. “Never mind; leave it till morning.”
“Oh! You might get some of the glass in your feet, ma’am,” insisted the young woman, picking up bits of the broken vase that were scattered upon the carpet. “And here’s your ring, ma’am, under the chair.”
Edna held out her hand, and taking the ring, slipped it upon her finger.
Little does the maid know that above everything, Edna craves having “some of the glass in [her] feet”, because then at least she’d feel something more than the dullness of her marriage and domestic existence.
As time passes, Leonce departs New Orleans for a business trip in New York, and Robert Lebrun relocates to Mexico under the pretext of ‘exploring new business ventures’ (but we later find out that he left to avoid being around Edna). With her newfound ‘liberation’, Edna begins to confront her desires head-on, as she realises that there’s no way to hide from what she truly craves – passion, love, and the feeling of wanting to give herself completely to another man (none of which, apparently, she’s ever really felt for her husband).
Yet, without Robert around, Edna falls into the arms of a notorious charmer, Alcee Arobin, who sees Edna’s loneliness as a perfect opportunity for seduction.
As the two grow closer, they eventually have an affair –
It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire.
And yet, even after their night of impulsive passion, Edna realises that it’s not quite what she wants. As the next chapter immediately picks up –
Edna cried a little that night after Arobin left her. It was only one phase of the multitudinous emotions which had assailed her. There was with her an overwhelming feeling of irresponsibility. There was the shock of the unexpected and the unaccustomed. There was her husband’s reproach looking at her from the external things around her which he had provided for her external existence. There was Robert’s reproach making itself felt by a quicker, fiercer, more overpowering love, which had awakened within her toward him. Above all, there was understanding. She felt as if a mist had been lifted from her eyes, enabling her to look upon and comprehend the significance of life, that monster made up of beauty and brutality. But among the conflicting sensations which assailed her, there was neither shame nor remorse. There was a dull pang of regret because it was not the kiss of love which had inflamed her, because it was not love which had held this cup of life to her lips.
[End of chapter]
The problem, Edna realises, is that it isn’t the thrill of adultery, the need for sexual fulfilment or even the desire for an underground romance which she wants. Because all of these things are temporary, and they require her to return to the ‘normalcy’ of marriage and motherhood when all she really wants is an absolute escape from these strictures in life.
This is the “understanding” (or indeed, ‘the awakening’) that she gains after her night with Arobin; it’s not any one man who can satisfy her, not Arobin, not Robert, certainly no Leonce, but a state of existence whereby she no longer has to carry the responsibility of being a Mrs Pontellier, or to be subject to “an overwhelming feeling of irresponsibility” as a woman who wants to be a woman before a wife or mother.
The passion of her night with Arobin isn’t liberating – “it was not the kiss of love” – but imprisoning, because it requires a hush-hush, brushing-under-the-carpet approach that only reinforces the phoniness which Edna so disdains in the polite society which she lives. The fact that she is finally able to see this, then, is clarifying and “beaut[iful”, but equally, it is “brutal”, because it forces her to finally reckon with the impossibility of ever living the real life she desires, and of ever being the real ‘Edna’ she desires – if she were to continue her life as ‘Mrs Pontellier’.
Finally, Edna realises there’s just one solution. Between eternal unhappiness and eternal escape, she chooses the latter, because putting up with the former wouldn’t just imply misery for herself, but also misery for those around her.
And so, at the end of novella, after Robert tells Edna that while he loves her they can never be together, Edna arrives at the beach and takes her life –
She had said over and over to herself: “Today it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn’t matter about Leonce Pontellier – but [the children], Raoul and Etienne!” She understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adele Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children.
We see, then, that Edna’s tragedy isn’t really about the lack of passion in her life, but the lack of truth in the way she lives. It’s not about the fact that all the men – Leonce, Arobin, and most of all, Robert – have let her down, but that as a wife and a mother, she can never live out these roles in a way that’s true to herself, only in a way that’s deemed appropriate in the eyes of society.
The real independence she craves was non-existent to a woman of her time, which is why she can only seek freedom in the extreme and the eternal – death. Shocking though it would have seemed back in Chopin’s day, Edna’s view of the tension between individual desire and domestic duty is raw, honest and human –
Despondency had come upon her there in the wakeful night, and had never lifted. There was no one thing in the world that she desired. There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realised that the day would come when he, too and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone. The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them… A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.
The symbolism of the maimed bird is clear: it is the pre-death reincarnation of Edna, as a creature who so desperately seeks freedom and yet is continually hobbled by her historical and social circumstances. “Despondency”, “antagonists”, “slavery”: these are strong, harsh words, but they convey the candour that perhaps many wives and mothers would have felt at least once in their lifetime.
Of course, most mothers would get over this feeling, either because their sense of social and domestic duty is stronger than Edna’s, or that over time, women have gained more individual freedom and power alongside their more traditional, familial roles. But by showing us the extreme consequences of an ‘unfree’ life, Chopin sharpens our awareness of the need to see women as humans first, and wives or mothers second.
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Reading L. P. Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’: “Our love was a beautiful thing, wasn’t it?”
Clearly, Edna Pontellier’s life is the stuff of tragedy, and presents a convincing argument for why marriage isn’t always based on love, and why love doesn’t always need marriage as proof.
In Hartley’s The Go-Between, which is set in Edwardian England, we see this similar idea being borne out by Marian Maudsley’s relationships with two men: Ted Burgess, her secret lover and the tenant farmer living on her family’s land, and Lord Hugh Trimingham, the Viscount who she’s supposed to marry.
Like Edna, Marian desires a love that her family and society don’t approve of. As a member of the well-endowed upper-class, she has an unspoken duty to marry an aristocrat so as to secure her family’s standing and reputation. But while Marian is perfectly accepting of putting up a front by showing outward affection towards Lord Trimingham, deep within she desires the rugged, grassroot Burgess, with whom she carries on a clandestine relationship despite knowing that it’s doomed to failure.
At the end of the novel, Mrs Maudsley, Marian’s mother, catches her daughter and the farmer in flagrante delicto, after which Burgess – unable to face the shame and misery of their relationship, commits suicide. And while Marian goes on to marry Lord Trimingham in a loveless and passionless way, she never quite manages to get over what’s happened to Burgess, but over the years, inures herself to the pain through cycles of self-denial.
In the Epilogue, the narrator, Leo Colston, meets up with an elderly Marian after many years, during which she reflects on her affair with Burgess (which a 13-year old Colston had inadvertently helped facilitate as a messenger of letters ‘going between’ Marian and Ted).
But in her reflection, we see that Marian’s ‘love’ for the farmer wasn’t perhaps as strong, pure and selfless as she believes it to be –
“You know the facts, [Leo], you know what really happened. And besides me, only you know. You know that Ted and I were lovers: well, we were. But we weren’t ordinary lovers, not lovers in the vulgar sense, not in the way people make love today. Our love was a beautiful thing, wasn’t it? I mean, we gave up everything for each other. We didn’t have a thought except for each other. All those house-parties – people being paired off like animals at stud – it wasn’t like that with us. We were made for each other. Do you remember what that summer was like? How much more beautiful than any since? Well, what was the most beautiful thing in it? Wasn’t it us, and our feeling for each other? Didn’t you realise it, when you took our letters for us? Didn’t you feel that all the rest – the house, the people coming and going – just didn’t count? And wouldn’t you feel proud to be descended from our union? The child of so much happiness and beauty?”
The context of this quote relates to Marian’s grandson, who Leo meets right before he pays Marian a visit. According to Marian, her grandson has heard it through the grapevine that he’s not a real descendent of Lord Trimingham, but is instead an offspring of Marian and Burgess’ son. (This is true.) As a result, he refuses to speak to his grandmother.
The problem that Marian has, though, isn’t the fact that she had carried on a secret relationship with someone her family disapproved of, or even that her once-lover had killed himself after the exposure of their affair; she cannot understand why anyone wouldn’t also see her fling as the “beautiful” thing that she had once enjoyed.
For Marian, the symbolism of her love with Burgess trumps all, and regardless of the subsequent practical obligations she had to fulfil (marriage, childbirth, protection of the family name etc.), nothing quite taints her memory of the ‘ideal’ love that she once shared with Burgess.
This ability to see love and marriage as fundamentally unrelated spheres of human life is perhaps why Marian, unlike Edna, manages to live till old age with little qualms about her past; having once loved truly, whatever comes afterwards is just a string of actions to get through for the sake of survival.
But for the considerably less pragmatic, less rational Edna Pontellier, the very awareness of having to live a life wherein love and marriage can never intersect is torture, and is therefore not a life worth living.
For a full experience of this wonderful novel, I highly recommend that you read it from cover to cover. It’s not one of those texts where you can just pick out a passage or two and glean lots of analytical significance from it, but read in whole, the narrative comes together in a magical way to create rich new layers of meaning.
Reading or studying other fiction texts? Check out my posts below!
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- Why you should read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (novel analysis)
- What F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men show us about the American Dream