Recent Posts:

Mark Zero's books on Goodreads
Blood & Chocolate Blood & Chocolate
reviews: 2
ratings: 19 (avg rating 3.74)

Give the Drummer Some Give the Drummer Some
reviews: 5
ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.11)

The French Art of Stealing The French Art of Stealing
ratings: 6 (avg rating 4.50)

The Scarlet Dove The Scarlet Dove
reviews: 1
ratings: 2 (avg rating 5.00)

Need the Feed? (RSS)

1097859 visits.

Posts Tagged ‘Ivan Turgenev’

Does Romance lead to Marriage? Turgenev’s Spring Torrents

Thursday, February 11, 2010 @ 01:02 PM  posted by Mark

Several of you took issue with my Valentine’s Week post about Pride and Prejudice, saying that I was unjustly dismissive of Austen only because the romances in P&P lead to happy marriages. Isn’t that where romance is supposed to lead, to a happy marriage? What’s wrong with a happy ending?

There’s nothing wrong with happy endings. Personally, I like happy endings. But Romance does not lead to happy marriages (at least, not in literature), and if you see a happy ending, you’ll know that something other than true Romance is really happening.

Romance in literature is, by its very nature, against marriage. In fact, even the “romantic” stories that end happily in marriage end with the wedding: these “happy ending” novels and plays and movies have no interest whatsoever in the married couple or their happiness, since there is no drama in marriage, no ideal of longing—all these stories care about is the obstacles to love. The happy ending wedding brings characters who have been in defiance of community morals back into line with accepted codes. We don’t go to romances for happy endings, because that’s not what they’re designed to deliver: we go to romances because we want rapturous longing that doesn’t care about society’s rules, the superiority of noble feelings to everyday morality, and the exaltation of the individual over the community. When they end happily in marriage, these stories reaffirm a basic covenant that they’ve spent their entire length contradicting.

Nastassja Kinski played Polozova in a 1989 film of Spring Torrents.

Great romances always make their protagonists contend against arranged or loveless marriages, hypocrisy, duty and necessity; they are in favor of a transcendent emotion that cannot be contained by society. When a great romance ends in marriage, the great romance itself ends and the lovers are absorbed back into society; when a great romance ends in death or exile, the great romance lives on past the lives of the lovers, as a grand, swooning ideal of love superior to the mere laws of the community (or physics). In the story of Romance, the lovers must die so that Romance itself can live.

Ivan Turgenev‘s curious little novel Spring Torrents is an excellent example of the great love that refuses to end in marriage. It’s especially telling that there are no good reasons in the story of the novel for the protagonists not to have a happy ending—the main character, Sanin, simply chooses not to marry his beloved. This choice is represented as an unhappy one, made seemingly against his will, but in fact he must choose not to marry his beloved in order to prolong his romantic feelings for her and not ruin them with the less dramatic comforts of marriage.

As Jane Austen captures the plight of middle class Englishwomen with wit and clarity, Turgenev describes the stranger in a strange land with insight and sympathy. The protagonist of Spring Torrents is Sanin, a minor Russian aristocrat traveling abroad for the first time, having adventures and falling in love. (Here‘s a clip of Timothy Hutton as Sanin in the 1989 film, doing a Russian mating dance for Gemma). Through a series of mishaps, he is stranded temporarily in Frankfurt, where he falls in love with Gemma, a clerk in her family’s pastry shop. Gemma is already engaged to another man, Herr Kluber, but Sanin falls instantly in love with her, anyway (why not?). In the course of events, Sanin saves Gemma’s brother’s life; and, more importantly, when a soldier insults Gemma, Sanin defends her honor when her fiance will not. Eventually, Gemma rejects Herr Kluber and agrees to marry Sanin. Sanin is overjoyed, the family is happy, Gemma is happy: cue music, roll credits.

Not so fast! Jane Austen might have Sanin marry Gemma, now that the obstacles to their love have been examined and exorcised, but Turgenev is not interested in affirming the basic structure of marriage or society’s rules. He’s so interested in keeping his Romance between Gemma and Sanin alive that he subverts it with a ruinous, unmotivated, even cruel plot twist. In order to pay for the wedding, Sanin agrees to sell some land in Russia to an aristocratic Russian woman, Polozova, who is sojourning in a nearby town. While away from Gemma transacting this business, he has an affair with the woman (who is married!), and then he abandons Gemma and follows Poozova and her husband to Paris. There, he is tormented by both Polozova and his love for Gemma and ultimately returns to Petersburg a broken man. In a coda, we learn that Sanin loved Gemma for the rest of his life; in his old age, he travels back to Frankfurt to find her and learns that she is happily married. Gemma forgives him for abandoning her.

If we didn’t understand that Romance is about eternal longing rather than happy marriage, the plot of Spring Torrents would be incoherent. As an instance of Romance, though, it’s perfectly realized. Sanin himself doesn’t even understand why he chooses to undermine his great love for Gemma, but we as readers know it is because, in the myth of Romance, great love is always opposed to marriage. Sanin chooses to desperately desire Gemma forever rather than have her because by doing so he may pine for an ideal that is always alive in his heart rather than live in an untranscendent reality.

Despite the fact that I’ve just spilled the plot to Spring Torrents, I would still recommend it, because, like all great literature, its value is not in its plot, and there is one sublime extended scene near the end of the book that will stay with you long after you finish reading this slender volume.

Romance is an ideal of passionate desire. Marriage is a reality of devotion. Romance places the lover’s own satisfaction above everything—God, family, law. Marriage places the partner’s well-being above one’s own. Are these two kinds of love mutually exclusive? Maybe not in life, but in literature?

If you know a passionate novel of romance whose main couple is already married to each other at the beginning and stays together through the end, please let me know.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]