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Posts Tagged ‘PRIDE AND PREJUDICE’

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.

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Valentine’s Week Romances: Pride & Prejudice

Wednesday, February 10, 2010 @ 12:02 AM  posted by Mark

Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice has been adapted for television, film and stage eleven times, and now a series of derivative novels adds vampires and zombies to the basic story. What fascinates us about this book?

The novel has endured because of its multiple layers of satire (largely downplayed in film adaptations); but the story holds our attention to this day because Austen did something revolutionary—she domesticated the Myth of Romance for the first time, and both the myth and the taming of it still speak to us. Pride and Prejudice exchanges the original myth’s Yearning for the Impossible for something much more modest: a Longing for a Not-too-Repulsive Guy with a Decent Income (still a commodity in short supply, and something we all can relate to).

The story of Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s union has become a Just So Story for modern middle class girls who are sure that their boredom is unjust and not their fault: the Happily-Ever-After ending entices women of all attitudes—debs, riot grrrls and post-post-feminists alike. Austen takes the basic story of love—unbiddable, ungovernable, like a riot in the heart—and puts it into a quaint country drawing room. In the Bennets’ circle, among the nattering nabobs of nuptiality, romance is more calculation than consummation. The risk of romance is social humiliation, and failure means lifelong economic dependence on your own relatives; the reward, should you land your beau, is a settled life with a modest income. True Romance, on the other hand—the Romance of the original myth—carries the risk of immortal damnation, and failure means a prolonged death of a broken heart; the reward for success is also death, but a quicker, more violent one.

What? Death or Death? What kind of lame choice is that? That’s not a nice myth for genteel drawing room girls, to be sure, who prefer Matthew Macfadyen‘s tousled hair to the Grim Reaper‘s pitchfork.

Grim Reaper or Mr. Darcy? Which would you choose?

But wait. Exactly what is the Romantic Myth that Austen domesticates?

The basic story of Romance is: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back and then someone or everyone dies. Hooray!

The same pattern shows up in Tristan & Iseult, Romeo & Juliet, Guinevere & Launcelot, Don Giovanni, Faust & Gretchen, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Catherine & Heathcliff, Gatsby & Daisy—the list goes on and on. The contexts of each love affair change with the times, but the setup is always the same. The love is uncontrollable; the lovers are unavailable to each other, often already married to someone else; and indulging love means defying God, the government and/or the lovers’ families. Nothing ends well for lovers in the classic myth, and that’s part of the point: Romance, at its heart, is the longing for something that we simply cannot have until we die—the enveloping embrace of eternal, unconditional love—which we taste through our beloved but consume fully only when we can no longer desire anything any more.

(This attitude of Romance is clearly a heresy against the Christian church, since in Christianity God is the One who offers eternal unconditional love, just for the asking—the problem is, He won’t make a Valentine’s Day reservation for two at your favorite restaurant. What’s a lonely girl to do, then, on all the days between Sunday and Sunday? Pray? Join a convent? But what about my. . . needs. . .? Chastity, family and duty? Oh where oh where did I put Romeo’s cell number?)

“In living I die and in dying I live. I hunger to be united with Love.”—Jacopone da Todi (a contemporary of Dante)

What then of Pride and Prejudice (sans zombies)? Why is it an enduring work of Romance?

Rachel McAdams, non-Wedding Crasher, longs for a man with £2000 a year and a cottage.

Pride and Prejudice endures because it personalizes the myth of Romance for the first time, makes it safe and attainable for your average Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams (and you!), makes it something we can relate to and long for and actually get in our own lives (maybe). The Romance of Romeo and Juliet is nothing you’d want, but Darcy and Elizabeth? Why not? Love, stability, a nice cottage, no real risk. . . who needs “Th’ exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2), if all you really get in the end is a dagger in the gut?

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