Exploring Plot Involving Marriage Through Classic American Literature – English Research Paper
Over time, many works of American literature have included plots of relationships and marriages. These marriages often are very complex just like relationships are in real life. Authors choose to follow the trend of real life in saying that not all relationships, especially marriages, are successful. In fact, in most
American literature, authors choose to describe the downfall of an unsuccessful relationship. Very few novels that I have read choose to show how the “happy relationship” does exist. A pattern in books that describe either a successful or unsuccessful marriage is they describe what qualities are needed to make a marriage. In the novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston chose to go against most authors and describe a successful, happy marriage. But like most authors, in the novels The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and The Awakening by Kate Chopin, the authors chose to describe the typical unsuccessful relationship.
In the novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, the main character Janie has many relationships throughout the plot. Janie’s ultimate goal in life is to find an identity through finding her true love (Domina 2). After two failed marriages, during which time her husbands treated her horribly, she finally feels a sense of freedom; this freedom is short-lived, however, when she meets a man named Tea Cake whom she falls instantly in love with. “Tea Cake, who represents the closest resemblance to her youthful idealism regarding love and marriage” (“Novel Guide” 1). When Janie and Tea Cake get married, they encounter problems like many other marriages. What Hurston describes as the key to Janie and Tea Cake’s marriage is open-ness, trust, and most importantly true love. Immediately after they get married, Tea Cake steals Janie’s money from her. The only way Janie and Tea Cake made it through their troubles were to be completely open with one another, a true sign of a successful relationship. Throughout the novel you see how the two lovers share a deep respect for one another. Janie views fulfilling relationships as reciprocal and based on mutual respect, as demonstrated in her relationship with Tea Cake, which elevates Janie into an equality noticeably absent from her marriages to Logan and Jody (Berridge 4). When Tea Cake tells Janie, “You’se something tuh make uh man forgit tuh git old and forgit tuh die,” it shows how deep and true the love between himself and Janie truly is. One reason for this undying love was due to Janie and Tea Cake being able to maintain their independence, which was important to both of them. “Yet Janie enjoys herself with Tea Cake more than she has with any other man. Tea Cake does not limit her to a particular role, he enjoys life and invites Janie to simply be herself (2). After Tea Cake dies, the author describes it as, “she was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief,” displaying how incredibly saddened she was over Tea Cake. He meant so much to her that she was utterly lost without him. Hurston here describes how in a successful relationship, when you lose the one you love, you feel like you have lost half your soul, which is how Janie feels in the novel. “…thanked him wordlessly for giving her the chance for loving service” (Domina 2). Whenever Janie and Tea Cake had problems they were always able to get through it, move on, and learn from it. “Ah’m thankful for everything we come through together.” The importance of certain qualities of a successful marriage, such as these described in Their Eyes Were Watching God, can also be revealed through the lack of such qualities in unsuccessful marriages.
In The Scarlet Letter, the relationship between Hester and Roger Chillingworth was unsuccessful due to the faults of both spouses. Hester and Roger were married in Europe, and Roger sent Hester America promising to join her there soon. Ultimately, she was left alone in America not knowing whether Roger was alive or dead. “… was the wife of a certain learned man, sent his wife before him… being left on her own misguidance… as it is most likely, her husband may be at the bottom of the sea.” Not hearing from your husband in two years and not being sure whether he’s alive was the biggest contributor to Hester’s failed marriage. With a frequent or extended absence from one person in a relationship, a couple ultimately grows apart. Because Hester was so alone in America, she became an adulterous woman and had an affair with Dimmesdale. Hester’s adulterous relations turned the “mother-father-child” family frame into a distorted family of 4 (Colacurcio 32). Hester’s infidelity with Dimmesdale seemed to be attributed to Hester’s independence from her husband, and freedom from the confines of her society. “…celebration of Hester’s sexual nature is also necessarily a celebration of her highly individual will” (Bloom, “Bloom’s Notes” 7). Edna in The Awakening also displays this characteristic of Hester’s. The silence Hester kept in order to protect Dimmesdale shifts her loyalty from her husband to her lover (Colacurcio 42). When Chillingworth found out the child Hester had was not his, he became very hostile towards her. When she was face-to-face with her husband, she was very uncomfortable and didn’t trust him. “looked into her eyes-a gaze that made her shrink and shudder because so familiar yet so strange and cold.” When a wife doesn’t trust her husband, there is no doubt that the relationship will ultimately be a failure. Hester also holds a great resentment towards Roger, and is very unreceptive of him. “She is not even compassionate to Chillingworth who, it must be said, rewards her at least with ample understanding and a certain measure of sympathy” (Kaul 17). When Hester and Roger meet again, they had no feelings for each other, and didn’t trust each other; the two most important components in a marriage. Hester and Roger, just like Edna and Leonce, didn’t have true love that was equal from the beginning. “thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love or feigned any.” Roger loved Hester deeply, but the love was never returned. “… the relationship was utterly lacking the Christian virtues of love and compassion” (Bryson 92). Later in the book, Roger admits that he had an instinct that the marriage was doomed from the start. “From the moment he came down the old church steps together… that scarlet letter blazing at the end of our path.” The Scarlet Letter, like many other novels, illustrated what characteristics define an unsuccessful relationship.
Finally, in The Awakening, the relationship between Edna and Leonce was a love-less, doomed marriage. Kate Chopin describes in the novel that when Edna first married Leonce that she didn’t love him. When Edna was a young child, she had a vision of what she thought was the perfect marriage; a vision that would never be fulfilled. “ Edna searches for the same this as Leonce: a spouse and children who adore and worship her” (“Awakening” 3). From the first day, the relationship was unsuccessful because Edna thought she could “grow” to love him. She was so pleased with the way Leonce worshiped her, that she assumed she could love him. “Edna married Leonce for all the wrong reasons… he was merely ‘putting his best side forward for her’”(4). When they were married, the couple frequently fought and was angry at one another. Leonce, being a typical upper class male of his time, considered his wife as more of an object of ownership rather than as an equal person. It is said that he looked upon his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of property. Of course, this would seem to find Leonce guilty of male chauvinism, if it were true that he viewed her as a possession and not a person, a mate, or a spouse (1). This treatment thus caused Edna, who was a very strong and independent woman, to be a very disrespectful wife and lose any admiration she once had for her husband. She also eventually disregarded her husband’s feelings. “’I mean to stay out here. I don’t wish to go in and I don’t intend to. Don’t speak to me like that again; I shall not answer you.’” This instance of disregard for her husband showed the pathetic state their marriage was in, if such hostility could arise over such an insignificant issue. When Edna began to overlook her husband’s feelings, Leonce also began be indifferent to Edna’s emotions. “Leonce is shown to be unconcerned with his wife, but here he is rather unmistakable as being very cold, and shows evidence of the fact that Leonce does indeed hold himself and his own affairs in somewhat of a higher esteem than he does those of Edna” (1). Another fault in their marriages was their failure to accept one another for who they were. Leonce wouldn’t let Edna paint like she wanted to, and also he was not fond of the fact that she didn’t enjoy the role of being a housewife. “Then her absolute disregard for her duties as a wife angered him.” Leonce also was hostile towards her because he felt she didn’t do a good enough job taking care of the children. “A difficult matter for Mr. Pontiellier to define his own satisfaction…his wife failed in her duty towards the children.” Leonce simply wanted the normal wife of the time, one who idolized her children and worshiped her husband. It almost seems that she felt the children were what kept her involved in her empty marriage with Leonce (8). All this resentment and displeasure in each other’s personality built up in the life of their marriage and was a great factor in its decline. Leonce also frequently left Edna and was rarely around. “He was returning to the city… he was eager to be gone.” “He would obviously rather be in the company of friends, gambling and drinking at the club, than spend a night with his wife. He did not even feel the need to tell her at what time he planned to arrive. The fact that she understands, without him saying it, he will probably not return until late, would suggest that this is a normal practice of his”(2). To make up for his absence, he would always try to buy back her love and support by giving her gifts. The separation between Leonce and Edna lead them to grow even farther apart. “A few days later, a box arrived for Mrs. Pontiellier…” Because of his frequent gifts, many women thought he was the greatest husband, when that was entirely wrong. Edna also helped in making the marriage unsuccessful. She never cared, or even listened when her husband was expressing his feelings about something very important to him. This utter disrespect caused a lack of communication, which was another factor in the failure in the relationship. “He thought it very discouraging that his wife… evinced so little in things that concerned him, and valued his conversation so little.” The most important factor in a marriage, true love, was never present. Edna never loved her husband, causing her to be adulterous and yearn desperately for another man. “Once she stopped, and taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet…she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it.” “This would seem to be a metaphor, showing the way in which she so desperately wished to end the marriage, but finds it to be utterly inescapable” (6). With a loveless marriage that had no foundation to keep it going, the relationship between Edna and Leonce was a failure. The Awakening was simply a “tale of a husband and wife who both want the same thing out of marriage; logically, though, it is rather impossible for both parties to be satisfied, and one must take on the role of the worshiper rather than the worshiped” (3).
Throughout these three novels, the authors exemplified what a marriage needs to be successful. Instead of choosing to show how these make a relationship successful, most authors choose to show how a loss of these qualities evolves into a failed relationship. Nonetheless, whether the relationship in the plot of a novel was a success or not, it usually is a major tool to developing the morals and themes of the work of literature. These failed relationships and the few successful ones allow the reader to see what is important in a relationship. Another reason many authors choose to write about failed relationships is usually because their story is much more entertaining than the story of the normal true love. Therefore, it can be affirmed that many authors throughout American literature prefer to tell the story of a failed relationship rather than a successful one.