Oh marital misery, what would we do without you? Here lies one of the great subjects of fiction, a chance to peer in close at desire, betrayal, hatred, lust, love, grief, boredom, disappointment, jealousy, and fury. Where else are we given front row seats to the kind of battle that rages only between two people sworn to love each other -- intimates, or inmates, supposedly conjoined for life? Here are nine dysfunctional marriages in literature, though the varieties of unhappiness are innumerable. Every marriage is different, even to the two people who occupy it. One person's tale of betrayal is another person's bid for freedom. One person's good enough union is someone else's small suffocating cell.
1. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert: Emma Bovary is who we talk about when we talk about marital unhappiness. Her simple country doctor husband cannot fathom the wild longings that live, then languish, inside her. In this portrayal of a doomed marriage, what speaks most piercingly is the contempt Emma comes to feel for Charles. The reader can only imagine Charles's side of the story: not the catalog of complaints he might lodge against Emma's vanity, infidelity and impracticality, but mostly, I imagine, just bafflement.
2. The Ice Storm: by Rick Moody: In this tale of angst in an upscale Connecticut suburb, marriage is a lonely state to live in. It is the mid 1970s and for Benjamin and Elena Hood, conversation is a rarity, intimacy is a figment, and sex is a relic of the past. They join their equally discontented neighbors for a key party, but even the partner-swapping sex is banal. One the night in which the events of the book tragically culminate, the ice rains down, the streets freeze, power lines fall. But inside these homes, the landscape is the most chilling of all.
3. Frenzy by David Grossman In this novella, Shaul is convinced that his wife Elisheva is having an affair, and in intoxicating, erotic detail, Shaul conjures every detail. The result is a feverish potent vision where love and jealousy are intertwined. Is Elisheva's affair fantasy or reality? Does the Elisheva of his imagination match the Elisheva who is, in reality, his wife? For Shaul, and for the reader, this no longer matters. What is undeniably true is that sometimes we live so close to someone, yet know so little of who they are.
4. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton: In this novel where obligation and passion clash, Leland Archer is married to the demure May, about whom "he had long given up trying to disengage her real self from the shape into which tradition and training had moulded her." Amid the watching eyes of New York society, Leland falls in love with his wife's unconventional cousin, Ellen Olenska. Making use of her social standing and a well-timed pregnancy, May upholds her rightful position as the wife. But though order is restored, there are no clear victories here, not even for May. To be a prisoner in a marriage is bad. To be the imprisoner, even worse.
5. Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen: "For forty seven years they had been married. How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say - but only now when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them..." And so begins a novella where marital dysfunction seems an inevitable byproduct of living. After a life of struggle, a husband and wife cannot agree whether to move to a retirement community. An embittered battle ensues, until the wife is found to be dying of cancer. Apparently, only death has the power to resolve some arguments.
6. Anna Karenina: by Leo Tolstoy: In this novel whose opening lines famously declare that all happy families are alike, all unhappy families not alike, there is, of course, Anna's passionate and doomed affair. But there is also the marriage between Anna's brother, Stepan, and Dolly, which doesn't erupt as tragically. Dolly forgives her husband's infidelity, as good wives do, but later in the novel, Dolly confesses to Anna that her own fidelity comes not from commitment but because no one has invited her to do anything to the contrary. In Dolly's words, there is resignation and entrapped desperation.
7. The Awakening by Kate Chopin: Leon Pontellier was a "rather courteous husband so long as he met a certain tacit submissiveness in his wife." His wife, Edna, feels that marriage is "closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams." I'm no couples therapist, but this hardly seems like a good prescription for contentment. One night, Edna learns to swim, and "a feeling of exultation overt[akes] her, as if some power of significant import ha[s] been given her to control the working of her body and her soul." That Edna ultimately drowns herself in the sea where she first felt such stirrings of freedom feels especially devastating.
8. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates: In a house, in the suburbs, in a marriage, live April and Frank Wheeler, new suburbanites who worry that they are becoming dull, inauthentic incarnations of all that they despise. It's easy to blame their unease on the suburbs, but in this bleak portrait, there is little doubt that misery can find us wherever we are. April and Frank might argue over who has trapped who, but Yates makes it clear that they, and perhaps all of us, entrap each other. April devises a plan for their family to escape to Paris, but it's far too late for any such salve. In this book, it's bad before it even gets going.
9. "Temporary Matters" by Jhumpa Lahiri: No doors are slammed, no sharpened knives are wielded in the opening story of Lahiri's collection The Interpreter of Maladies. A young married couple, Shoba and Shukumar, are quietly reeling from the stillbirth of their first child, retreating to their own private seas of loss. One week, when the electricity is out, they pass the time by each revealing something they've never told the other, a game that ought to come with warning attached: Do not try this at home. They trade confessions, until she unveils the news that she is leaving him. Her blow is painful, but his retaliation is even more deadly. This story warns us that sometimes the most dangerous of marital downfalls arrive stealthily.
Tova Mirvis is the author of the new book Visible City.
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