Anna Karenina is a novel about the conflict between responsibility and independence. Anna is torn between her love for Vronsky and her fidelity to her husband, Karenin; and gets lost between the two. A vital, beautiful, intelligent woman, her choices are slim. She either follows the aristocratic, heroic Count, or remains faithful to her traditional and morally demanding and traditional husband. Her passions overcome her probity, and she goes off with Vronsky to lead a rootless, itinerant life of decreasing happiness and increasing guilt.
Emma Bovary follows the same path as Anna, and like her commits suicide, less because of lost love than out of lamentation for the impossibility of the co-existence of love and life.
Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter loves neither her husband nor the father of her child, but for a lifetime is torn between protecting the reputation of the former and dismissing the claims of the latter. She is a social and moral outcaste. She refuses to acknowledge her marriage nor to claim the paternity of Pearl’s father. She is spared death at the hands of the Salem fathers, but must suffer the scorn and opprobrium of the town’s burgers, convicted and consigned to wear the Scarlet ‘A’.
Carol Milford in Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street marries a proper Midwestern physician and follows him to the Minnesota prairie. She soon realizes that she has married a dullard, but because of a sense of propriety and probity diverts her frustrated attention to community activism. Finally she leaves her husband, moves to the city, but soon realizes that she has been selfish and ignorant. She has misjudged her husband, a good man, who has dedicated himself to medicine and treating the ill; and goes back to him. She has deepened her understanding of human nature and honed her own sense of moral responsibility, but in the embracing of her husband and their small town life has negated her own individuality.
Peter Wescott in Walpole’s Fortitude, has been raised by an abusive father and weak mother; and like his fictional brother Pip of Dickens’ Great Expectations, goes to London to seek fame and fortune. Both fortune and fame elude Peter who before the publication and acclaim of his first novel finds himself penniless, without prospects, and disillusioned. He was wrong to abandon his home, however abusive, for an illusive dream.
Throughout Peter’s rise and fall, the can never forget or expunge the memories of Cornwall, his dying mother, and his tyrannical father; and after his own failure and rejection by London literary society, he can only return to his home to confront this past – a past which has been the source of his creativity and his torment.
In the end he cannot forget, dismiss, or reject his father, his mother, and the penitential environment of home. He returns to confront his father perhaps with the hope of some final reconciliation, but ends up more despairing and despondent than he ever was.
Literature is filled with the biographies of artists who have struggled against a middle-class, bourgeois upbringing. Tennessee Williams throughout his literary career tried to square his religious, middle class beginning with his anti-establishment passions. Summer and Smoke, Glass Menagerie, and Suddenly Last Summer are all plays about social constriction, responsibility, familial allegiance, and the frustrated emancipation of the individual spirit.
Laura in The Glass Menagerie is reclusive, timid, sexually repressed, and dominated by her mother. Yet she is courageous enough after years of hermetic guilt and insecurity to meet a Gentleman Caller. Ingénue, innocent, and ignorant, she forces herself out of seclusion in one last attempt at normality. She is rejected and, one has to assume, returns to an even more penitential, dark, and isolated life with her mother.
Clyde Griffiths in Dreiser’s American Tragedy is driven less by propriety than by ambition. In his quest for the social status and acceptance that his itinerant preacher parents could never have had, he murders his pregnant lover in order to remain free to marry into the elite. His ascendency into the world of the privileged and his rapid descent into duplicity and murder is an American tragedy because of the unreasonable and ultimately impossible dreams of social mobility and success.
Thomas Sutpen, the main character in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom is driven by middle class, bourgeois dreams of social status, acceptance, and preeminence. It is not enough for Sutpen to have cleared, tilled, planted, and harvested and profited from ‘Sutpen’s Hundred’ – 100 square miles of rich Mississippi Delta bottom land. He must marry well and produce offspring who will carry on his name and legacy.
Yet he has been deceived by The American Dream. Bourgeois status, security, and longevity are as difficult to achieve as a thousand tons of cotton on Sutpen’s 100. He, like Othello, is unable to translate or transfer his successes war and business to the emotional life of family.
What is the message, then? Is the bourgeois ideal of happy family, social status, prosperity, and respect only a chimera? Are married couples doomed to lives of desperation and frustration, chattels to the notion of salvation through harmony? Are the outliers, the challengers, and the antisocial rebels always doomed to exclusion?
Edward Albee hated families, but knew that marriage was the crucible of maturity. Only within the perimeter of marriage and family can anyone evolve. No social architecture can possible provide the equestrian hurdles necessary for jumping over childhood, adolescence, and youth. Although husbands and wives might never emerge from marriage, they will have at least faced their demons.
So, what is to be made of modern, loosely-defined marriage, those concluded on practical grounds in which responsibility is measured by adherence to prescribed rules, limitations, and regulations? Why is it that so many people still value an institution which denies and deprives personal freedom and independence for few rewards?
Henry VIII beheaded many women for not producing a male heir. Inheritance and the continuation of a storied history was, despite all the successful conflicts with the Pope, Spain, and France, after the consolidation of power and territory, and after the neutering of internal palace enemies, all that really mattered.
Both kings and commoners depended on productive marriages. Kings for an assurance that their royal legacy would last for generations; and commoners for labor and some measure of social and economic worth. A cuckold was not only a weak and ineffectual husband but a fool. Why would any man die in his traces for a child of another man?
Marriage made sense in the time of kings; but has lost all relevance. Children cost far more than they are worth. No sons are required to light the funeral pyre, to provide in old age, or to give succor and comfort. Children are a luxury, a commodity for the wealthy and a burden for the unlucky. If anything, they provide a look at lost innocence, but this is hardly enough to sustain the institution.
Yet even gay men, the most sexually independent if not libertine subgroup of the population, are headed for the altar. Civil unions and the right to favorable tax status are not enough. Only sanctified marriage will do.
Although the formal marriage rate has dropped in the West – i.e. fewer official marriages occur today than ever before – men and women are still forming unofficial reproductive and sexual units. The need for association is as strong as it ever was. People are seemingly quite willing to give up a measure of personal freedom for the more stable and permanent institutions of matrimony and family.
At the same time, infidelity is as common as it ever was. Despite the new social and moral conservatism, husbands and wives are looking outside marriage for sexual and emotional satisfaction
Why, then, is marriage so durable?
Edward Albee famously noted that marriage is the crucible of maturity. Only when the shutters have been closed and couples are able confront the consequences of their desires, their frustrations, their failings, and their ambitions can they evolve. Not children, not family legacy, not labor, not innocence - nothing is so important about marriage than its role in emotional maturity.
Responsibility is the product of ore refined within Albee's crucible. Although children are brought up to respect honesty, civility, decency, and compassion, these principles are academic until they have been tested in marriage. As natural and common as serial sexual relationships may be, and as much as they represent an ideal masculinity to most men, they test their moral foundations. It may be easy to get away with a cinq-a-sept, but is it right? Is infidelity only a normal and expected safety valve without which marriages would explode? Or is it a breach of a legal, social, and moral contract?
Although the character of marriage is rapidly changing - gay marriage and asexual reproduction are only the beginning – it remains sought after, prized, and highly valued. We cannot seem to live alone.
Ivan Ilyich, the main character of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich realizes too late that “We all die alone”. No matter how perfectly constructed one’s social and family life may be, we must all face the end absolutely and ineluctably alone. Is that what is behind marriage?
Responsibility and maturity are by-products of marriage; but given the fragility of the institution and the few practical benefits it accords, they are essential. Without marriage, none of us would be tested, and few would have to show their moral credentials. While ethics and moral behavior are acknowledged if not always valued in the marketplace and within social networks, there is nothing to temper these values – to alloy and anneal them – like marriage. No one gets married because they want to strengthen their moral resolve, but it is the one common outcome to all unions.
On the other hand, as Nietzsche remarked the only validation of humanity in a meaningless world is the expression of individual will. Although few of us are Supermen, able to ride above the herd in an amoral universe ‘beyond good and evil’ and confident enough to act on personal self-interest and ambition, the sentiment is within all of us. Most men’s fantasy is not coming home from a responsible job to wife and children; but harems, brothels, trysts, and sexual adventures. Men don’t want or value responsibility. It has been demanded of them by women, by society, and by culture.
Responsibility is one of these values that we admire, vote for, and demand in our leaders; but bridle against ourselves. We stomp and snort in our stalls, try to spit out the bit, toss our riders, and run free across the prairie, but we cannot. The traces that bind are too tight.
Without responsibility curated and nurtured in marriage we would be lost – a wandering, wild herd at first feeling the sharp air of freedom but soon inevitably corralled. We need the corral, the reins, the traces, and the stable.
Yet without our own personal stampede life would be worth little. Life may not be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ as Hobbes saw it; nor a meaningless traipse through a few decades of insight, creativity, and energy as Tolstoy did; nor as desolate and cold as Nietzsche observed it; but no one lives without personal ambition and a need for validation of worth which is independent from interaction with others.
We may want to break the bonds of marriage, but we cannot do without it.