Culture

What we learn from literature’s most famous marital fights

The Wall Street Journal | Posted on

I have a thing for lovers’ quarrels — literary ones that is. There’s just nothing quite so dynamic, so conversant in so many emotional and moral registers, as a face-off between sworn intimates doing whatever it takes to win. It’s the proverbial car wreck, the horrific conflagration we can’t look away from, because the fire is actually kind of grand.

In college, I took a seminar called “Doomed Love in the Western World,” on troubled affairs throughout the ages: “Troilus and Criseyde,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Madame Bovary,” “Anna Karenina,” “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” “The House of Mirth,” “The Satanic Verses,” “The Human Stain.” For years after, everything I read seemed to extend the conversation of that class. Social worlds might change, but love would always find agonizing new ways to die.

So when I set out to write my first novel, I had a tradition in mind. How does doomed love look in today’s affluent America, which wants to have its cake and eat it, too? Lavish weddings and gender equity, marching side by side.

For most of human history, of course, marriage was about power and property, not love. The historian Stephanie Coontz pins the origins of the love gospel around 1790, a shift that eventually gave way to the revolution we’re still experiencing—one marked by divorce, co-habitation, the rise of same-sex marriage, and the decline of traditional gender roles. But cultural change is messy, and when observed through individual lifetimes, it can look soul-crushingly slow. No wonder novelists, when dramatizing the domestic disorder of the past two centuries, have tended to write with a sense of doom. Specifics vary with characters’ circumstances and desires, but on the whole, the literary tradition is remarkably consistent. Weddings might make for happy endings in Austen, but modern marriage is basically a row.

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