Reconstructing the marriage plot

Off the Beat

As a literature student and self-professed bibliophile, I often related to characters in novels. Or at least, aspired to be like them. I yearned for Elizabeth Bennet’s charming yet incisive wit, Jane Eyre’s moral fortitude and Bathsheba Everdene’s fierce sense of independence. As I lived vicariously through fictional lives, I dreamt of inhabiting these qualities, living under their constrained social mores, kissing their Byronic suitors or wearing their tight corsets.

But it wasn’t until I encountered Madeleine Hanna of Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot” that I truly found my life reflected in the pages of a book.

Aside from sharing a first name, Madeleine and I and are both English majors obsessed with the Victorian novel. Like Madeleine, I was simultaneously entranced and disillusioned by Roland Barthes’ deconstruction of love in “A Lover’s Discourse.”  And, for better or for worse, both Madeleine and I have an incorrigible appetite for emotionally unavailable, brilliantly unstable hipsters.  

While Madeleine is studying at Brown University, her ardor for the romantic Victorian epic is undermined by the rise of semiotics and the strange new realities of modern life. One of her professors declares, “In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had a subject to write about. […] Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma [Bovary] married if she could file for separation later?”

The hopeless nostalgic that I am, I was thrilled by the professor’s words. This was it! This was the rationale that I needed, an articulation of the intangible contempt I felt for contemporary literature, the justification of Friday nights spent alone re-watching the 1939 version of “Wuthering Heights.” The modern novel was, quite simply, deprived of high stakes!  

Postmodern characters never contended with the weight of a repressed society, one in which Anna Karenina would sooner jump under a train than live with the stigmatization following her infidelity, or where Rochester would prefer to hide his deranged wife in the attic rather than get a divorce. Your spousal choice dictated your societal rise or fall, your reputation and honor — essentially, your happiness (or lack thereof) for the rest of your conceivable life.  And even more terrifying, one miscommunication or accidentally undelivered letter could wrench two lovers apart forever.  How and whom you loved was pretty damn important.

Nowadays, computers can analyze our preferences and calculate our chemistry.  We swipe left or right, we message (and are lucky if we get polysyllabic responses). We hook up, break up, marry and divorce. The possibilities are endless and the consequences few. But this lifestyle begs the obvious existential question: Is it better to live in a world where every choice matters or where no choice really matters at all?

The modern age, like the postmodern novel, would lead us to believe that we’ve dissected our desires, that we’re completely self-aware. Yet despite deconstructing the triteness and artificiality behind every “I do,” we still fall in love. “A Lover’s Discourse” didn’t stop Madeleine Hanna from marrying the archetypal bad boy. Anyone can guess that Elizabeth and Darcy will end up together, but it doesn’t make their witty banter or restrained passion any less exciting or their ultimate repudiation of social norms any less rewarding. And although I can predict that the next guy I fall for will probably be a brooding artist with a tortured soul, I can’t explain why. Reading about deconstruction taught me to recognize the tropes in Victorian novels and in my own life, but it’s been powerless to stop them from affecting me.  

It is certainly possible that Madeleine and I suffer from a nostalgic distortion of the past.  As with most modern works of fiction, it could be that the Victorian novel enthralls us because it exposes fundamental aspects of the human psyche. Maybe the timelessness of Victorian literature is not dependent on a rigid society, but on good old internal conflict and interpersonal drama a formula that has created great novels throughout history. Perhaps it is misguided to speak so plaintively about a lost era that might not actually be so different from our own.

This may be true, but I still maintain that the Victorians got something right that we, for all our choices and all our “empowerment,” are getting wrong. Yes, their stakes were high, but the peril was thrilling and the tragedy was real; this was a time when romance was Romantic and earnest commitment was valued. Though the characters of my Victorian novels couldn’t control everything around them, they imparted significance on what little they could. They believed in the meaning of love, and were willing to abandon family, defy society and risk their own lives for it. Reckless and cliched, maybe, but I admire them for that.

And frankly, I wouldn’t mind ending up like Elizabeth Bennet.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion columnists have been selected.

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