Marriage As An Ideology

Essay add: 29-09-2015, 19:27   /   Views: 514
3.Her husband the relater she preferred
Before the Angel, and of him to ask
Chose rather; he, she knew, would intermix
Grateful digressions, and solve high dispute
With conjugal caresses: from his lip
Not words alone pleased her. O! when meet now
Such pairs, in love and mutual honor joined?
(John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book VIII)

Throughout literary history, from the biblical to the postmodern there is a recurrent ideology that continually appears, that of marriage. Whether the ideology of marriage is used as a benchmark for “normality”, or as a representation of the self, there is no denying that along with death and religion, marriage remains prevalent as imperative to many texts, both past and present. Some, like John Milton, argue that love and marriage do not go hand in hand, as common human intuition leads us to believe. Milton believed that, “The greatest loneliness is the loneliness of the heart in marriage”, the ideology of marriage is central to Milton’s most famous work “Paradise Lost”, which is in essence, the story of a marriage gone wrong. Therefore, if Milton is to be believed, it can be argued that the ideology of marriage in literature can be traced back (in Christian mythology at least) to the dawning of time. In the past marriage was as important to life as it is today. Religion tried to keep a hold on it, the establishment tried to control it and the consensus proclaimed it to be the most vital key to social order.

The continual thread of the importance of marriage through the passage of time is highlighted in the texts that this essay is concerned with. “Mrs Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf, which is set shortly after the first world war and “Open Secrets” by Alice Munro, in which the short stories span across time from the colonial to the modern. In these texts it is evident that marriage shapes the lives of all, whether they entered into it through choice or circumstance, or not at all. In the case of the latter a woman who remains single is seen as a spinster who has “failed” to get married. An unmarried man is often portrayed as untrustworthy or an object of gentle mockery. In less recent times a woman's status in society was shaped and controlled, to some extent, by her relationship to the opposite sex. In married life the woman was judged on three criteria; how she maintains domestic harmony in maintaining the household, her reproductive and maternal ability and her sexual duties to her husband. Matrimony consisted of the public and private spheres which were considered non-interchangeable, the public sphere was the man’s territory and the woman kept the private side in order. Thus all are socially contextualized, or indeed “pigeonholed” in respect to their relation to the ideology of marriage. It marks physical, emotional and economic coming of age and, as we would like to think, in more primitive times, it granted wealth, status and participation in civic an social events.

In relation to the ideology of marriage both Alice Munro and Virginia Woolf are keen to labor the aspect of entrapment, investigating whether their characters are manacled by the constraints of the ideological group they find themselves in. Of course these characters can only reflect upon their own situation when they stumble upon recognition of their ideology in an epiphanic moment, “Ideology is the complicated process within which men become conscious of their interests and their conflicts” (Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature).
In “Mrs Dalloway”, the central threesome of Clarissa, Peter Walsh and Richard Dalloway can be seen as a microcosm of the world around them. Clarissa has, it appears, married for selfish reasons such as social standing while sacrificing perhaps the love of her life, Peter Walsh. The characters obsession with class can be seen as a social commentary throughout the novel. Clarissa comes to be a paradox of a character in that although she has many profound thoughts throughout the novel the greatest thing she can offer society is a vain, artificial party. The laborious attention to detail displayed by Clarissa in the preparation for the party serves to criticize the pomp and circumstance of the upper classes lifestyle in England at the time of the novel. We feel that Clarissa and Peter should have perhaps married instead of Clarissa and Richard, whom Clarissa was attracted to because of his direct ideas and affinity with animals. This attraction between Richard and Clarissa seems weak compared to the heat that Clarissa and Peter share, when Peter returns from India there is still an intensity between them and Peter decides to attend Clarissa’s party even though he despises it just so he has a chance to speak with her.
Although it may appear that Clarissa has “sold out” by marrying Richard we can look at their union as a symbol of Clarissa’s defiance and refusal to submit to her baser instincts. Many critics argue that the character of Septimus Warren Smith is Clarissa’s opposite, his negative to her positive. In this light we can perhaps say that had Clarissa married Peter she would have gone down the same road as Septimus and gone insane. Peter Walsh recognizes this in Clarissa in relation to her reaction to the news that a young woman present at a dinner party had a baby before marriage, “ He hadn’t minded her for minding the fact, since in those days a girl brought up as she was, knew nothing, but it was her manner that annoyed him; timid; hard; arrogant; prudish. ‘The death of the soul.’ He had said that instinctively, ticketing the moment as he used to do – the death of her soul.” (p44). Here it is almost as if Clarissa’s reaction is determined by her ideological status, perhaps she feels that being shocked would be the appropriate reaction for a woman of her standing. Peter recognizes this submission as the “death of her soul”; in reality it is the death of the only soul in Clarissa he sees and ultimately the death of their relationship. Thus marrying Richard Dalloway is like the death of Clarissa and her lack of an emotional or physical connection with him leads her to become as dead as Septimus by the end of the novel.
However, we are left doubting the love of Clarissa for Peter because in the midst of their relationship she has a crush on Sally Seton, a young lady staying at Bourton with her. Woolf states that Clarissa had loved Sally, “and what was this except being in love?” p35. This leads us to believe that perhaps Sally Seton was Clarissa’s true love and that she cannot love anyone in the manner in which she loved her. In fact the only true moment of intimacy Clarissa is afforded in the novel is with Sally Seton, “Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world may have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it - a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!” (p35-36). The kiss here is described as an epiphany or an ecstasy, conveyed with religious imagery. Therefore the flaws of miscommunication and tenderness are between Richard and Clarissa is highlighted, this leads us to believe that perhaps Woolf is criticizing the man’s role in a reciprocal relationship. Indeed directly after Sally and Clarissa’s kiss men intrude upon her moment, the intrusion of Peter and old Joseph reflects the dominance of men in society and the conservatism of its sexual ideology.
This technique of bringing ideology to bear in relationships is also evident in “Open Secrets” by Alice Munro. Munro is rejects the traditional parameters of the short story and brings a documentary quality that provides a dreadful clarity and stubborn opacity. Munro refuses to bring resolutions to her stories so that they remain secret, the title “Open Secrets” refers to something, which is supposed to be a secret, but everyone knows. The title is also an injunction, the stories should open these secrets but they do not, they chart desire but continue to be unrevealing. These secrets have to be excavated by the character and this leads to a sense of vertigo linked to the epiphany. Resolution is beside the point for Munro and the fact that the secrets remain as such is central to the appeal of Munro. Munro’s characters have what appear to be epiphanies or revelations but ultimately they are untranslatable. What is seen is never really understood. An example of this is in “Carried away” (p50), “No wonder she was feeling clammy. She had gone under a wave, which nobody else had noticed…Sudden holes and impromptu tricks and radiant vanishing consolations.” This carries on the notion of “open secrets” in which the character is afforded a glimpse of another self but which ultimately remains unattainable.
Munro also refuses to follow a single narrative and refuses to confirm or deny what we are thinking, her writing neither represents nor falsifies. This doubtfulness comes to bear in “Vandals”, here the romantic genre is undercut by sarcasm, the paradox that Bea can only fall in love when she is married and it is adulterous is wickedly ironic. For many of Munro’s characters their sense of belonging doubles as a condition of bondage. Munro sets up an opposition of the socially sanctioned way of being versus the way their lives would have been if sanctioned behavior were not followed. The characters become aware of this contradiction and the complicated process is written out across the text. The ideology of marriage thus becomes a way for the characters to measure the normality of their lives against the possible live they would have lived out. Marriage also serves as a method to entrap a fiery character, a method to normalize the monster, “A free woman in an unfree society will be a monster” (Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman).
Throughout “Open Secrets” there is a counterbalance between the married and the unmarried, for example Milicent and Dorrie in “A Real Life”, “I can’t leave’ she said, prying up some of the bacon that was sputtering in the pan…’Marriage takes you out of yourself and gives you a real life’. ‘I have a life’, Dorrie said.” Dorrie is the unmarried monster that Milicent is attempting to tame, using marriage as the cage in which to entrap her. Milicent becomes the normalizing figure. Munro is deliberate to express how marriage does not entrap her characters.
Munro’s characters are shown even less than we are but some like Louisa in “Carried Away” have a heightened consciousness and sense of perception. Louisa’s conscious self is shocked by the feelings she experiences which do not belong to the married self. In contrast however it can be argued that Bea in “Vandals” appears to be completely oblivious to the world around her. Bea becomes the ultimately silenced woman figure; her survival strategy is to accept that emotional love is sterile and irredeemably scarred. Munro introduces the contrast between the moment of insight versus the existential darkness. The darkness can be argued as represented by Ladner who can be argued to be a pedophile that systematically abuses Liza and Kenny. Liza sees Bea as a fairy godmother who will cancel out Ladner's abuse, however Bea is apparently unaware of the parallel narrative, and thus the fairytale is never completed for Liza. Munro proposes an ambiguous morality here, asking is Bea free of blame for being unaware of Ladner’s abuse, “Bea could spread safety, if she wanted to…The woman who could rescue them – who could make them all, keep them all, good. What Bea has been sent to do, she doesn’t see. Only Liza sees.” It can be argued that Bea is oblivious but there is a darker suggestion that perhaps she is turning a blind eye. However the fact that Ladner is a taxidermist which provides connotations of shape shifting and the manufacturing of false exteriors seems to suggest that Bea is merely fooled by Ladner, she cannot see the amoral nature of his “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” aspects of his character. Her vision of Ladner is perhaps impaired by the constraints of her ideological group; she is blind to the potential darker side of Ladner.
This idea of an external ideological force dictating choice in relation to marriage and relationship can also be seen in “Mrs Dalloway” through Clarissa Dalloway’s literary double, Septimus Warren Smith. His marriage to Lucrezia is a desperate attempt to anchor himself in reality, Rezia feels betrayed because she has given up her innocence and her homeland for Septimus, and she suffers humiliation and sadness as Septimus slips into insanity. Rezia feels cheated, she wanted to have a “normal” marriage and to have children, not be with a man who is steadily going insane. However, Rezia is not bitter with Septimus, she takes his side in the doctor’s surgery which is one of the few instances we see a tangible relationship as husband and wife. Indeed just before Septimus dies they have a sweet, nurturing moment together. Septimus thinks he is saving them both by committing suicide; he sacrifices himself for his wife. However this idea of sacrifice in relation to Septimus can be taken further, when Clarissa hears of Septimus’ fall she imagines it through his eyes and feels what he might have. She and Septimus share a physical connection and this leads Clarissa to realize that his death is a sacrifice for her and the others at the party to continue to exist. Through this Septimus can almost be seen as a Christ-like figure. Clarissa and Septimus’ are further linked when the words of Shakespeare come to her “Fear no more the heat of the sun. Nor the furious winter’s rages” (Cymbeline). This is significant because as Septimus, who had gone to war for Shakespeare, dies he stands in the heat of the sun. This undeniable interconnection between Clarissa and Septimus can lead us to say that they are involved in a marriage with each other; they are a marriage of the same person, separated into two characters by the polarity of the self. Septimus represents the darker element of human nature and Clarissa embodies the more social, carefree aspect. Woolf’s decision to kill off Septimus can therefore be argued as her balancing out the character of Clarissa. The sacrifice of Septimus allows Clarissa to appreciate life more.

In addition the notion of the public versus the private sphere within marriage is dramatized in “Mrs. Dalloway”, in the case of Clarissa and Richard Dalloway it is quite clear that Clarissa occupies the private and Richard the public sphere. A member of the government, Richard is continually attending meetings and councils. In contrast, throughout the entire novel Clarissa is obsessed with planning her party. Clarissa is therefore either unaware or complicit in her own oppression, she is perfectly happy to lead a vain life and leave the public sphere to Richard. This may be because Clarissa conveys a damaged, almost zombie like femininity, we feel that the only change in this trend of complicit oppression can come about through Elizabeth, the “virgin queen”. Her curious difference in appearance serves to highlight the differences between her and her mother. Elizabeth is a pioneer; she explores parts of London her mother would never go. Perhaps here what Woolf is saying is that there is hope for the future, perhaps Elizabeth will pick up one of the loose threads of society and tear that social fabric to pieces. This contrasts with Clarissa who attempts to create an illusion of cohesion, her stitching of the dress together is symbolic of her role in life which seems to be to mend, to assemble. However Clarissa feels her identity is unfixed but the social class system allow her to treat others as if they are fixed, the notion of conflicting ideologies again seems to be emerging. The idea that people have their fixed place in society versus the notion that selfhood is resistant to ideology because it is in a constant change of flux, like the ocean, an extended metaphor for the self, used throughout by Woolf. Since Woolf appears to agree with the latter, that self-hood is constantly changeable we can argue that Woolf is attacking the tendency for complicity of role within society, “ the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected; …the tyrannies and servilities of one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other.” (Virginia Woolf – Three Guineas, 1938).

This idea of a skewed marriage is also often at the heart of “Open Secrets”. Sexual transgression is often at the heart of the “open secret”, the microcosm of small town life hints at the wider world. For example “Spaceships have landed” can be seen as an allegory on the nature of life. The two main characters Eunie and Rhea are complimentary polar opposites, the name Eunie hints at the uniqueness of the character and Rhea can be seen as the mother goddess. The fantastical element of aliens is not untypical of Munro, indeed she is constantly blurring the line between fantasy and reality, this reflects each individuals desire to be rooted yet to have a layered and interesting life. Marriage can therefore be seen as the rooting mechanism that anchors us in real life. Throughout “Open Secrets” the more maverick characters such as Eunie or Dorrie in “A Real Life” are the ones who are not married, they have no anchoring mechanism provided by matrimony. This “Unanchored life” is a life without sanctions, without boundaries, it can be argued that Munro’s refusal to follow a single narrative is reflected in her characters refusal to give in to a domineering ideology.

The idea of illusion within marriage is also prevalent throughout “Open Secrets”, in “The Jack Randa Hotel” a woman called Gail travels from Canada to Australia to track down her former lover who has married an Australian drama teacher, this traveling reflects how ideological boundaries can be broken. Gail refuses to be rooted in one place; she becomes a nomad, migrating constantly. The fact that Gail has difficulty telling the truth but is very fluent in telling lies reflects Munro’s interest in the diversity of character and how reality eludes what it claims to represent, “the notion of universality of a human experience is a confidence trick and the notion of a universality of female experience is a clever confidence trick” (Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman).

In conclusion, both “Mrs Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf and “Open Secrets” by Alice Munro make effective use of the notion of the ideology of marriage. They show that, whether we like it or not, as an adult our perception of people is bound up with the ideology of marriage. Perhaps this reflects societies morbid fascination in human affairs; maybe it is a throwback to a time when marriage was the main indication of social status. Regardless, these texts utilize the ideology of marriage to show that the issues marriage throws a light on for example, dominance of gender, complicity of role, can be applied to the wider world as a whole. In addition, “Mrs Dalloway” and “Open Secrets” expose the complicities and dependencies that keep members of an ideological group in a particular, often damaging, kind of bondage.

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