Daniel Deronda, a Victorian novel I am currently reading, is one that was considered controversial in its day due to its sympathetic portrayal of the Jews. Set in England, the novel’s events are described chiefly from the perspective of the upper class white Gentile community. I’m too early in the book to have experienced any of the material regarding Judaism, but I think its depiction of marriage as the end of freedom for women is still, in some ways, controversial.
The stereotype persists that men view marriage as the end of freedom, while women crave the institution the way thirsty desert wanderers crave a cold glass of water. The latest spike in reality shows featuring plural marriages – one husband and several wives – as well as the tireless Bachelor franchise, and the jokes that permeate most sitcoms seem to support this stereotype. I think the truth has always been more complicated.
The novel’s author, George Eliot, sums up her narcissistic, manipulative protagonist, Gwendolyn’s, view of men with the following statement (though she’s talking about gambling, not marriage): “she cared for the excitement of play, not the winnings” (p. 6). Gwendolyn loves the attention of being pursued. She callously enjoys the fact that she can break hearts. She has no real desire to be tied down, though she knows that it’s inevitable at some point.
The patriarchal and hierarchical society of the Victorian age put women in two unfortunate positions: they needed men for their economic survival, and they were expected to be the passive recipients of male desire. It makes marriage the ultimate goal for women – the way an interesting, lucrative job is the ultimate goal for men. However, it deprives women of the opportunity to go for it, as it were. They have to look pretty, wait, and hope to be chosen.
This understandably bred resentment in many women, which, of course, could not be openly expressed (not if they ever hoped to be chosen). So, as annoying as Gwendolyn is, her response is altogether reasonable, given her situation. And the reality, even today, is that marriage tends to be more work for women than it is for men. There are still many men who view marriage as the procurement of nursing care, maid services, and a personal chef – and in response the man brings home a paycheck. Hopefully.
So, while the stereotype of women being desperate to get married persists, it persists, I believe, out of habit and tradition, not out of a rational response to the status quo. Unmarried women tend to live longer than married women. Although most married women work outside the home, they still do most of the childcare and housework. Perhaps, like Gwendolyn, it is the “play” that we really like – the attention, the romance and the drama of a wedding, for example – not the “winnings” – a man who sits on the couch waiting to be fed.
I’m being facetious, of course. I’m not knocking marriage. It’s wonderful with the right person. It’s a chance to grow and mature as a human being. Through the power of synergy, two people can do more together than either one alone. The legal commitment brings a certain sobriety and sense of family to the couple, which can be quite rewarding. But marriage for marriage’s sake is no bargain. As Gwendolyn says “…what is the use of my being charming, if it is to end in my being dull and not minding anything? Is that what marriage always comes to?” (p. 23).
That is not what marriage always comes to, but, if we don’t question society’s narratives and group-think, we can naturally fall into some pretty unhealthy patterns. In 2018 we can surely do better than that.
Peace and love,