Searching for marriage in literature is like holding a kaleidoscope to the world—at the slightest movement the arrangement, colours, shapes, angles, relationships, and mood are altered. In literature as in life, there are good marriages and bad, good marriages that turn bad, and marriages that on any one day one shift from blissful to hellish and back. Compiling a list of representations of marriage in literature is a daunting task—so much is devoted to the theme. It goes without saying that the list you compile today wouldn’t necessarily be the one you’d put together tomorrow. Here is but one view from the kaleidoscope:
Epithalamium (Greek and Roman times)
Among the Greeks, the epithalamium is a song in praise of bride and bridegroom, sung by boys and girls at the door of the nuptial chamber. Among the Romans a similar custom was in vogue, but the song was sung by girls only, after the marriage guests had gone, and it contained much more of what modern attitudes would identify as obscenity.
Orpheus and Eurydice, 6th century BCE
While walking in tall grass at her wedding, Eurydice falls into a nest of vipers and suffers a fatal bite. Her body is discovered by Orpheus who plays such sad and mournful songs in his grief that even the gods weep. On their advice, Orpheus travels to the underworld, softens the heart of Hades with his beautiful music, and Eurydice is given permission to return with him to earth. All Orpheus has to do is walk in front and not look back until they both reach the upper world. Even with the best of intentions and at the risk of the most severe consequences, Orpheus loses focus. Or perhaps his love is just not powerful enough. He turns to look at Eurydice and she vanishes for the second time, this time forever. (Those who know me will understand why this story resonates so deeply—from the snakebite to the backward glance to the second death.)
The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare, 1591
I’ll attend her here,
And woo her with some spirit when she comes.
Say that she rail; why, then I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.
Say that she frown; I’ll say she looks as clear
As morning roses newly wash’d with dew.
Say she be mute, and will not speak a word;
Then I’ll commend her volubility,
And say she uttereth piercing eloquence.
–Taming of the Shrew II.i.1013
Middlemarch, George Eliot, 1872
Each of the central characters of this novel builds castles in the air and then attempts to live in them. Because they are idealistic, self-absorbed, or otherwise out of touch with reality, they make serious mistakes that cause great unhappiness and eventually shatter their lofty illusions. Some characters learn from this process and others do not. The Chinese-fortune-cookie-moral of the story seems to be that those who learn not to build castles in the air generally end up happy, while those who persist are miserable.
The Egoist, George Meredith, 1879
Sir Willoughby Patterne, self-absorbed and arrogant, is jilted by his bride-to-be. Determined to marry, nonetheless, he vacillates between the sentimental Laetitia Dale and the strong-willed Clara Middleton before eventually deciding upon Clara. The thrust of the novel follows Clara’s attempts to escape from this engagement when she realises that Sir Willoughby desires nothing more than that she serve as a mirror for him. The Egoist dramatizes the difficulty contingent upon being a woman in a society in which women’s bodies and minds are trafficked between fathers and husbands in order to cement male bonds.
To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf, 1927
Mr Ramsay is a typical Edwardian gentleman, well-educated, slightly supercilious and endowed with a strong sense of his own primacy. When Mrs Ramsey dies, he’s adrift. Without his wife to praise and comfort him during his crushing bouts of anxiety and customary anguish regarding the longevity of his philosophical work, he suffers. However, he still fails to acknowledge her lifelong support of his efforts.
Life After Marriage: Love in an Age of Divorce, A. Alvarez, 1981
Mutual assistance pacts can last a lifetime. They are not necessarily happy marriages in the accepted sense of the term—on the contrary, they are founded on hatred or contempt or distaste—but they may be the only way the partners can get through life without crumpling under the pressure of urges they will not recognise as their own, like a stunt man whose wife is frightened to cross the road: he takes the risks she secretly yearns for, while she personifies the fears he feels driven continually to conquer. The same coin, different faces.
There’s more, so much more…
Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes, 1998
This slim volume of poems was published only months before Hughes died. However, his honesty is called into question in Birthday Letters for several reasons: the poems were published after the lapse of thirty five years and, when read in conjunction with Plath’s own poems, letters and diaries, differ markedly from her perspective. Questions remain: Was Plath a gifted but deeply troubled and mentally unstable woman who could not free herself from the past? Or was she the victim of Hughes’s serial infidelities and indifference? Is Birthday Letters a celebration of marriage or a last-stab defense of Hughes’ betrayal?
Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust without Reason, Anne Roiphe, 2011
This sudden and overwhelming desire to bring coffee to the side of a writer, to wash his socks, to stare down his enemies, internal or external, seems inexplicable in the light of the following turns of history, but at the time it was adaptive, the way the leopard got his spots and the snake his nasty rattle.
Describing her life as a young woman in the 1950s, Roiphe must reduce her own ambitions to only the faintest stirrings, make herself unaware that women’s lives are on the brink of drastic change and ditch the disillusionment that her freewheeling sexual abandon eventually creates. The standout moment? When a man refuses to sleep with her until he breaks up with the woman he’s been dating. Roiphe is so stunned by his sense of honour and integrity, something she had not previously encountered in a man, she marries him.
Aftermath, Rachel Cusk, 2012
It may be overstating things to illustrate Cusk’s deeply sad memoir of her marriage and it’s failure with a photograph of a victim of Hiroshima. Then again, maybe not.