By Talia Vestri
As we march ahead, perhaps forebodingly, into a new epoch in America’s political climate, one might wonder exactly what can be the value of teaching Romantic poetry and prose. In the weeks immediately following the recent historic election (however one chooses to define “historic”), we must consider whether undergraduate students really want to spend their time reading Wordsworth’s “A slumber did my spirit seal” or Keats’s “To Autumn” or Austen’s Emma. When these students are otherwise preoccupied with what Twitter and Snapchat have to tell them about the current state of the world, why would they choose to bow their heads over texts that, while they may have something to say about the early nineteenth century in Britain, seem to be so distant and disjointed from our own time and place? This was a question I set out to explore this fall…and then November 8th happened.
I was graciously awarded the chance to teach an upper-division course this semester in our Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program—a rare treat and, of course, a daunting proposition for a nascent literary scholar, as it required assembling an interdisciplinary syllabus for the first time. The course topic I proposed was on the institution of marriage, in which I planned to use texts from literature, history, psychology, anthropology, law, queer theory, and popular culture to assess the current practice of marriage and how it shapes our everyday lives. The reading list ran the historical and disciplinary gamut, from the Bible and Plato to Lévi-Strauss and Freud to Lawrence Stone and Stephanie Coontz to Judith Butler and the Defense of Marriage Act.
Sticking true to my roots, our very first text of the semester was a literary one: Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. On a hunch, I thought that kicking off “Why Marry?: The History, Fantasy, and Reality of Married Sexuality” with this 200-year-old novel might allow us to set up some key topics for the semester, including: sex and sexuality, romantic comedies, “true love,” money, class, kinship and family, courtship, domesticity, romance, the rise of affective individualism, the expected rights and obligations of marriage, legal contracts, etc.
Underneath the breadth of such themes lay an even simpler fundamental proposition: What cultural ideologies underpin (invisibly) what we understand to be the “good” reasons for marrying and the “right” kind of marriage partners? What has been so integral—both then and now—to our culture that we cannot even see these ideas working in our everyday lives? Why does it matter, anyway, that we aren’t bothered by the fact that Mr. Darcy just happens to pull in 10,000 pounds per annum, since he and Elizabeth are “meant to be” and exemplify “true love”?
So, by now you must be wondering, what does all of this have to do with recent politics? My hypothesis: Everything.
In the middle of our semester, we had to come to terms with our own blue bubble, so to speak, and the material we had been discussing philosophically and historically suddenly gained a palpable political urgency. Reading texts from feminist and LGBTQ perspectives, and re-considering texts from earlier in the course, we discovered a deeper problematic with political investments in notions like “family values” and the “traditional” American marriage—values that will undoubtedly inform upcoming legislation on reproductive rights, immigration, welfare, citizenship, and more.
In the post-election haze, we read Judith Butler’s “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” (2002), a pivotal piece of queer theory that draws out an essential double-edged sword of the same-sex marriage movement: On the one hand, we want politically to strive for civil rights and equality for all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender, and the same-sex marriage movement has had, for several decades, an essential role in re-shaping the legitimacy of LGBTQ lives. On the other hand, Butler argues, we also want to think critically about what this achievement reinforces: by drawing inclusive lines around same-sex married couples and blessing their creation of alternative family systems (with children), we simultaneously push radical queerness—and singleness, and divorced-ness, and non-monogamousness, and polygamy, etc.—further to the outskirts. Do we truly want Marriage with a capital M to be what decides these boundaries?
In light of such queries, Jane Austen begins to look a little different. Since I had set this text up as our foundational story of love and romance, we examined it in retrospect, returning to Elizabeth and Darcy again and again as we proceeded to read about the history and legalities surrounding marriage in America today.
In line with Butler’s provocation, for instance, Lydia and Wickham’s unconventional and unacceptable elopement can be seen, as one of my students points out in her final term paper, to be a radical, non-normative queerness that remains forever outside the available options of what the Bennets’ world will accept—yet perhaps it is just as legitimate of a form of sexuality and romantic relationships as a conventional marriage between Jane and Bingley. The celebration of the dual weddings at the end of Austen’s novel excludes other viable forms of kinship, just as Collins and Charlotte’s marriage of comfort seems to expose Elizabeth’s desire for true love in a poor light.
Speaking of true love… what really irked my students was Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, a film resonant with Austen’s novel and drawing on the same themes and concerns of the classic. When Meg Ryan’s character loses her business, power, status, and financial independence because her small bookstore crumbles in defeat from the big box monster Foxbooks (inherited by Tom Hanks’s character), but then it all turns out alright in the end because Tom and Meg discover their “true love,” well – my students couldn’t believe it! Okay, I asked, then what about Darcy and Elizabeth? Isn’t it the case that both texts require the woman to sacrifice her standing in the world for the protection and support of a man—and doesn’t You’ve Got Mail ask us to swoon and celebrate at this happy ending? Have we not come so far from Regency England, after all?
What I really enjoy revealing to students is that the idea of marrying for love is, in the grand scheme of things, a brand new invention of Western culture. While Pride and Prejudice gave us an inkling of this, it’s only after reading the work of family and marriage historians like Nancy Cott, Lawrence Stone, Ruth Perry, and Stephanie Coontz that my students appreciated just how new an innovation this was. Understanding that family interests and financial and property concerns were once the raison d’être for the institution, we can now question whether the ideals of love, self-actualization, and mutual support are too much to ask of such a social system. Just listen to this wonderful TED radio hour on the subject.
All of these themes came together with our own current political concerns when we looked at the congressional reports on the Defense of Marriage Act and the court case, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which made same-sex marriage a legal right in Massachusetts. The rhetoric in both of these two documents, and in their dissenting statements, fluctuates between defining marriage as an investment in supporting families, as a moral imperative, as a symbol of love and (monogamous, lifelong) commitment between two individuals, as a primary concern for the community and its wellbeing, and, of course, as the one institution that can protect the outcome of heterosexual sex—i.e., reproducing children. It’s a regulation of sexuality and a system that legitimizes children. It’s there for the sanctity of two individuals alone, but also for the community at large. It’s a means of perpetuating Christian morality and for doling out government resources.
Marriage tries to do a lot of things, and maybe not all—or any—of them very well. And since juridical and legal documents can’t quite get a hold on agreeing to one definition or purpose to the institution, maybe we should lay off it a bit as the single system that gives, as the Defense report notes, a whole slew of legal rights, since “the word ‘marriage’ appears in more than 800 sections of federal statuses and regulations, and the word ‘spouse’ appears more than 3,100 times.” For something so intrinsic to our legal system, shouldn’t we agree on what it is first?
This brings us back to Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s novel isn’t just about whether Darcy is too arrogant or whether Elizabeth should get over herself long enough to see Darcy through objective eyes. Her insight into her own contemporary culture allows Austen to pit these conflicting views on marriage together, all as equally legible in her particular moment: marriage can be about mutual esteem and respect between two loving partners; it can be about passionate impulse and reckless abandon; it can be about stability and support and, ideally, not having much to do with your boring spouse; and it can be about witty banter with the attractive woman who turns out later to be a dunce. It’s about reproduction but also about love; about the stability of extended kinship and about the equanimity of two lovers. It’s about a lot of things. And today, we’re not any less confused about what it should be than were Austen’s Bennets and Bingleys. So maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t keep legislating about something that continues to shift right under our feet.