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Inequality in Marriage in English Literature
Although existing from the dawn of history itself, marriage as an institution has greatly changed its scope and purpose in time. Thus, before the modern period, marriage was an arrangement between two parts, functioning almost as a social contract and meant to serve particular proposes. Marriage used to be one of the most important institutions in society, as it was the only acceptable way to have and raise children and thus perpetuate the human race. It was almost a social indecency to shrink from marrying and to lead an independent life. Moreover, once a marriage was contracted, a divorce would have been unacceptable. For some men, marriage was a source of dowry or a means of getting a better social position. For women though, for the longest time, marriage had been the only means of survival, something that their very existence depended on. In the patriarch society that dominated the Western world for the most part of the human history, the women were entirely dependent on the masculine figures in their lives, first their fathers and then their husbands. Interestingly enough, the husband also became a father figure soon after the engagement was over and the marriage began, having unquestionable authority over the wife. Thus, as much of the literature of the early modern world indicates, for women marriage was perhaps one of the most important moments in their lives and certainly one that marked their entire existence afterwards. In the modern world, the situation has changed to a certain extent, as marriage has shifted its purpose from a mere social contract to a contract of love. The society no longer interferes so much in the life of the individual and thus marriage is contracted according to the desires and expectancy of those involved.
For a long time, it was thought that marriage should never be based on such an intemperate, uncertain and whimsical feeling as love. It is well-known that love is perhaps one of most of the indefinable and the most unpredictable of the human feelings. The earlier societies believed that love was not a serious enough feeling to justify marriage. Thus, there were many other considerations that had precedence over love when a marriage was decided about. In her famous and interesting book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz argues that marriage has evolved progressively from the early modern era to the twentieth century, from "obedience to intimacy." According to Coontz however, the marriage contracted for love reasons is not an invention of the twentieth century but actually of the eighteenth century. Even in the eighteenth century, the people had a certain freedom in choosing their respective husbands or wives. Nevertheless, love was certainly not the primary consideration that people took into account when deciding to get married. The decision had to do more with common sense and the rules imposed by society than with the private feelings of a certain person. The women especially had less liberty in choosing their life-partner. First of all, they were not allowed to have any initiative of their own in finding a male partner, and had to wait to be courted by the men who were interested. After the marriage the woman had to submit herself to the will of her husband and to make sure she fulfilled his wishes. As Susan Cruea noticed, in the patriarchal society of the eighteenth and nineteenth century women were the victims of social and economic discrimination, being drastically limited in their social roles to motherhood or spinsterhood: "The setting of these goals resulted from women's rising awareness of the precariousness of their situation in the patriarchal society of the 1800s. At this time, women were the continual victims of social and economic discrimination. Upper- and middle-class women's choices were limited to marriage and motherhood, or spinsterhood. Both choices resulted in domestic dependency."(Cruea, 25) While they could choose to remain unmarried or to work to support themselves, such situations were considered extremely unnatural. Society was thus a harsh judge of the women and of their actions.
The bottom line was that women were not naturally independent. The world of action belonged to the males in society and the women were only allowed as wives and mothers that stayed at home and cared for the household. The English literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries portrays the situation of women in the patriarchal society. Thus, in many works of literature women are seen as having as sole preoccupation their prospective marriages and the details related to the household. Coontz underlines that there have been many couples who were in love no matter the century in which they lived. Nevertheless, in the early modern world love was considered many times as something too irrational or frivolous to justify a union in marriage: "For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage. In fact, many historians, sociologists, and anthropologists used to think romantic love was a recent Western invention. This is not true. People have always fallen in love, and throughout the ages many couples have loved each other deeply."(Coontz, 5) As Coontz observes, although there were certainly cases where couples were in love or at least were held together by a deep affection, love was certainly not the principal reason for getting married: "But only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married. When someone did advocate such a strange belief, it was no laughing matter. Instead, it was considered a serious threat to social order."(Coontz, 5) Coontz underlines thus that this kind of attitude was considered a threat to social order. Thus, individual freedom was curtailed in many aspects so as to prevent a possible disruption of social order. This rule was applied even more strictly to women than to men, because women had been associated with temptation and sin ever since the remotest historical times. Eve, as the mother of the entire human race is also the first sinner. She represents the woman as a tempter, someone who through her weakness can lead men astray. The same image of the woman is mirrored in Milton's Paradise Lost, where Adam is certainly depicted as superior to Eve, as her master and protector. In Shakespeare's plays women are also portrayed in a discriminatory fashion. One example is The Taming of the Shrew, where Katherine, the 'shrew' in the title of the play is 'tamed' by her husband until she unquestionably follows his orders in everything she does. Significantly, Katherine is only regarded as a shrew because she always states her opinion and is never submissive in front of men. There are numerous other examples of women in literature that clearly have to suffer the effects of discrimination.
The most interesting cases on unequal marriages come probably from the literature written by women. Naturally, their writings, although outnumbered greatly by those of men, are always concerned with the situation of women in the patriarchal societies. Women were obviously keen observers of gender discrimination, especially because they were put in the position of authors themselves, and, as such, they found themselves surrounded by the overpowering male literary tradition. Having to write and therefore to raise their own voices, the women writers naturally felt awkward in the exclusivist male tradition. George Eliot's novel Middlemarch is centered on the problem of marriage and especially on its effect on the woman. The main character in the novel, Dorothea Brooke, undergoes an interesting and very telling experience with her two marriages. What is significant here and remarkable of Eliot's subtlety is that she presents a situation where the woman deliberates on her own with respect to both marriages. Thus, the first marriage to Mr. Casaubon, the fifty years old dry scholar is a failure. Nevertheless, the fact that Dorothea chooses this marriage out of her own free will is very telling: due to her Puritanical views on the one hand, but also the installments provided by the patriarchal society, the nineteen-year-old girl angrily rejects her fervent suitor Sir James Chettam and instead accepts the old and dried up Mr. Casaubon for her husband. The situation is very relevant because it indicates the extent to which the patriarchal attitudes were implemented even in the mind of the women themselves. Dorothea's opinion of the ideal marriage is very symbolic: she thus dreams of a husband that would resemble a father figure, somebody who could be a teacher and a guiding figure for her, and not a life partner as the modern woman would look for: "The really delightful marriage must be that where your husband was a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew, if you wished it."(Eliot, 7) Thus, despite of her cleverness, Dorothea appears to be extremely naive in…[continue]
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