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What happened to (Anglo-American) marriage

July 20, 2015

[Third and last in a series. Previous posts can be found here and here.]

Like I said, I have no plans to actually pursue any investigation of marriage’s historical development. But I do have some suggestions for thinking about the topic from a literary perspective.

In my post about Pope Francis’ recent encyclical I quoted Alan Jacobs, an English professor at Baylor University, as follows:

If I had my way, I’d spend the next couple of months preparing to teach a class in which this encyclical — a far richer work than I had expected it to be, and one that I hope will have lasting power — would be read alongside Guardini’s book, with both accompanied by repeated viewings of Mad Max: Fury Road. The class would be called “Who Killed the World?”

In a similar spirit of serious frivolity, I propose the following syllabus, for a class titled “What Happened To (Anglo-American) Marriage?” It exists in a fantasy world where students will read either one book or two plays per week, though it could, of course, easily be reduced to something reasonable (one play or movie a week instead of two, two weeks for a novel instead of one, relegate the critical works to an optional appendix).

  1. Introduction
  2. Geoffrey Chaucer: “The Franklin’s Tale”; “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”
  3. William Shakespeare: All’s Well That Ends Well; As You Like It
  4. William Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing; Twelfth Night
  5. Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
  6. Jane Austen: Emma
  7. Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility
  8. Denis de Rougemont: Love in the Western World
  9. Oscar Wilde: Lady Windemere’s Fan; An Ideal Husband
  10. Old Hollywood: Bringing Up Baby; The Awful Truth
  11. Old Hollywood: The Lady Eve; The Philadephia Story
  12. Stanley Cavell: Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage
  13. New Hollywood: Groundhog Day; Four Weddings and a Funeral
  14. New Hollywood: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Silver Linings Playbook
  15. Obergefell v. Hodges, both majority opinion and dissents

The premise of the syllabus is, of course, that we can trace the evolution of marriage through the literature that has been written about it. It also assumes that comedies, rather than self-serious books like those of George Eliot and Henry James, are the best way in which to do so; and that we can look at comedies like these, not merely as isolated works, but as representatives of genres: Shakespearean comedy, Austenian comedy, what Stanley Cavell (whose book inspired most of the above) calls “comedies of remarriage,” etc. Finally, it focuses on English-speaking literature, on the assumption that, influenced as it was by Anglicanism rather than Roman Catholicism or a more individualistic strain of Protestant Christianity, marriage evolved differently in the Anglosphere than elsewhere in Europe. (Rougemont’s book, which focuses mostly on Continental literature, and on tragedy rather than comedy, is included to offer an alternative to these suppositions.)

Beyond this, the course needn’t set out to make any particular argument. The point would be that we can learn something about ourselves through close attention to these works. It’s not too difficult, though, to say something about the basic trajectory: marriage begins as something taken-for-granted which the idea of romantic love begins to disturb (Chaucer); it becomes a way to define oneself through a relation with another (Shakespeare); then a balancing act between economic stability and personal happiness (Austen); then something subject to destabilizing attacks from outside (Wilde); then something inherently fragile, needing constant repair (Old Hollywood); then something requiring innumerable attempts to achieve, if achieving it is even possible (New Hollywood).

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