The Marriage Puzzle
This week found me sitting in my book club circle, where we pondered what makes some marriages last for a half century or more. Patience? Humor? Balance? Detachment? What is it that makes some hang on, while others walk away when the marriage hits a rough patch?
Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, The Marriage Plot, was at the center of our discussion. No fifty-year unions here, but both quickly dissolving and longer lasting varieties of marriage are represented. The book centers on English major Madeleine Hanna, on the verge of college graduation as the book begins.
The real world is mostly uncharted territory for Madeleine, who comes from a smart, privileged family. This is less true for her love interest Leonard, who has more troubled roots, including a family pattern of alcoholism and bipolar illness. He’s considered a good catch on campus, but below the radar he wrestles with mood swings and begins to recognize that they may be an immutable fact of life. Mitchell, another boy who takes a course with Leonard and Madeleine, completes the triangle. He’s preoccupied with Madeleine and, later, as he travels the globe to forget her, with religious ideas and treatises that hold increasing power for him.
Each character has his or her own take on what marriage means. Madeleine, who loves Victorian literature but is also intrigued with more modern texts that deconstruct and intellectualize the experience of being in love, is conflicted about what she wants and what she feels she should do for the man she has, rather unexpectedly, married. Eugenides’ voice is a clear, contemplative one that’s empathetic with each of his characters’ inner dialogues. It’s true for Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell that love leads to some form of sacrifice, be it a rather predictable outcome of loyalty and guilt or a gesture likely to surprise even the one who performs it.
Another novel that examines marriage also touches on the role of sacrifice. The Raven’s Bride is told in the fictionalized voice of Virginia Clemm Poe, young bride (even for that time) to her cousin Edgar Allan. Not long after childhood doll play that includes fantasies of Eddy as her ideal husband, Virginia marries him, at the same time establishing a triangle completed by her practical and watchful mother, Muddy. The threesome rides a roller coaster whose dips include bouts of poverty, Edgar’s binge drinking, and Virginia’s health as it declines in stepwise fashion.
Each part of the triangle is dependent on the other. Edgar is plagued by memories of loss and fears that he’ll also lose Virginia; he seeks comfort in her presence. In a time before women have joined the workforce Edgar’s income is crucial to survival, but his emotional frailty puts Virginia and Muddy in the strained position of safeguarding his sobriety. In modern terms, the arrangement might very well be termed codependent. The stability of the family is threatened constantly; the women feel they must do whatever it takes to stand by and protect the most erratic member of the clan.
There is, however, a real bond between the married Poes that seems to extend beyond dysfunction. Edgar wants to fulfill Virginia’s hopes of making music and inhabiting the cottage of her dreams, and Virginia’s sometime jealousy is superseded by her concerns about Edgar’s wellbeing as she anticipates her own early death from consumption. Ultimately, the bond between Edgar and Virginia, which informs and inspires Edgar’s literary genius, even surpasses the earthly realm, making the “until death do us part” clause irrelevant.
So what is it, exactly, that keeps a marriage strong and makes it last, perhaps even into eternity? This remains a largely rhetorical question, but one still worth examining even as the definition of marriage itself is reexamined. The Shakespeare sonnet I had to memorize in high school insists that “love is not love/which alters when it alteration finds” and that love “looks on tempests and is never shaken”. But when it comes to marriage, the modern movie title, “It’s Complicated” might be a better fit. The Marriage Plot and The Raven’s Bride each contain a fair share of alterations, tempests, being shaken, and ultimately, unwished for separations. But each novel also contains some wisdom on the spark that draws people closer and holds them together in a tangible, human place of warmth, if only for a finite and fondly remembered interlude.