What is literature full of? Words, sentences, paragraphs, and…unhappy marriages.
And why not? There are tons of unhappy marriages in real life, and many fiction readers are fascinated by car wrecks — whether literal (dented vehicles) or figurative (dented relationships). Heck, authors are among the people in negative wedlock, and the adage is “write what you know,” isn’t it?
I just read E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair, a 1930s-set memoir/novel in which young Edgar’s parents Rose and Dave “exemplify” several reasons why unhappy couples are unhappy. The too-practical Rose is frustrated in the way many stay-at-home moms were before the modern feminism era, while the free-spirited but at times irresponsible Dave has wider interests — one of which seemingly involves cheating on Rose. Also, Dave’s mother is very condescending to Rose, who not only bitterly resents that but resents Dave for not taking his mother to task for her attitude. Meanwhile, the family is slipping financially.
Yes, marriages can be troubled because of money problems, adultery, mismatched personalities, and many other reasons — including health issues, mental issues, and physical or psychological abuse.
The passive-aggressive Edward Casaubon is psychologically abusive to his young wife Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which also dissects the strained marriage between the ambitious Dr. Lydgate and the spoiled Rosamond Vincy. In the same author’s final novel, Daniel Deronda, the willful but basically decent Gwendolen Harleth marries wealthy brute Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt out of financial desperation — and disaster ensues.
Few authors depict wedded non-bliss in as astute a way as Eliot does.
Published a year after Daniel Deronda, Emile Zola’s 1877 L’Assommoir (The Drinking Den) sees a happy marriage between Coupeau and the hardworking Gervaise go sharply downhill when the former gets injured and becomes an alcoholic. Eventually, Gervaise…well, I won’t give away what happens to her, except to say that the abused wife in Stephen King’s Rose Madder ends up faring much better (with a little supernatural help).
Societal racism can also weigh heavily on a marriage that might have been happier in a more unbiased world. That weight is certainly apparent with couples in novels like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.
While the male half of a couple is often most at fault in literature, that’s not always the case. For instance, Cathy is amoral while Adam Trask is merely clueless in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and the hypochondriacal Zeena is much less sympathetic than the taciturn title character in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. Wharton also created another unlikable woman in The Custom of the Country‘s social-climbing Undine Spragg, who badly treats her first husband Ralph Marvell.
Here are a few of the countless other fictional works with somewhat or very troubled marriages, of long or short duration: Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story, Graham Greene’s short story “The Basement,” Henry James’ The American, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Flight Behavior, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, and Fay Weldon’s The Bulgari Connection.
This blog post focused on heterosexual marriages because gay marriage is relatively new enough to not yet appear in a lot of novels (as far as I know). And I didn’t discuss not-wed couples in order to keep this post a manageable length! Besides, it’s often easier to get out of a bad relationship than a bad marriage.
Which unhappy marriages do you remember most in literature?
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