Posts Tagged ‘Marriage’


In Books on March 4, 2011 at 10:24 am

(So I know I said I’d do Othello, and I promise that I will, but I’m really bored of the classics right now and wanted to do something contemporary, just to show that I’m, like, ‘with it’, or whatever.   That I don’t spend my life in my room unless I’m running or driving to Mum’s to watch United.  Also, I just got this in the mail, so I’m gonna be out of commission for a while.  Enjoy.)

Freedom’ is a word that gets bandied about a lot, mostly by politicians and ideologues.  They shroud it in historical nostalgia and glittering, indeterminate progressive garb, tapping into the subjective warmth and tempered patriotism it elicits in their hearers.  What exactly we need to be freed from and what we’ll do with that freedom once we have it, they never bother to clearly elucidate.  Why should they?  Freedom is good.  We want to be free.  The problem with their side-stepping is that it doesn’t address the question that’s becoming ever more prevalent in a society addicted to instant gratification – what does one do with one’s freedom?  There’s no lack of it, especially in the United States, where we have the ability and license to do pretty much anything – buy whatever we want, see whatever and whomever we will, go wherever and whenever we choose.   But what should we do with our freedom?  Once we know what we can do with it (and, more ominously) what we ought to do with it, is freedom still something that we want?

This is the question that Jonathan Franzen explores in his book, Freedom. The story has been touted as a commentary on contemporary American marriage and family life, but it’s also an insightful examination of how our political and economic environments influence those relationships – how the systems that facilitate our freedom (in the political sense of the word) help determine our freedom in our interactions with our spouses and children.   Politics are the driving force behind Patty Emerson’s aristocratic New York family – her father is described as the quintessential WASP attorney; her mother is a state assemblywoman.  So much does the political machine dominate the Emerson’s relationship with their daughter and with one another, that when Patty is raped at seventeen by a classmate, both her mother and her father counsel her against prosecuting the offender and his wealthy, influential family.  This confirms what Patty has suspected all along – that in her family of sophisticated, philanthropic parents and cultured, artistic siblings, she is nothing more than the aberrant gene, manifesting itself as a dumb jock.  As a result, she throws herself into sports, her intensely competitive nature acting as both a refuge and coping mechanism.  It was economic considerations that prompted Walter Berglund’s ancestors to leave their native ‘socialist’ Sweden for the free-market opportunities of the United States.  The problem was that once they had their freedom – the freedom to make more money, live where they chose and socialize with whom they would – they didn’t know how to use it.  As a result, they essentially gave themselves over to the impulse of the moment, and before very long, were again shackled by the poverty they sought to escape. Not only does it enfetter the Berglund forebears to a life of indigence and ignominy, it extends down the family-line to Walter.  His father’s attempts to mortify his (Walter’s) artistic tastes by forcing him to clean the blood and urine out of the carpets of the family’s decaying motel and his mother’s inability to effectively defend him to her husband confirms Walter’s sense of inadequacy, and he retreats (literally) into nature, finding the peace and comfort he seeks in the Minnesota woods.

The story centers around Walter and Patty trying to free themselves from the cycle of self-destruction that has characterized their family history – instead of allowing economic circumstances to dictate his decisions, Walter attempts to establish a new economic foundation in society; a static one focused on the preservation of nature, rather than it’s consumerist exploitation.  Instead of yielding to the feminist agenda and familial pressure that compels her to pursue a vocation outside of her home and family, Patty becomes a stay-at-home wife and mother, determined to be the nurturing and encouraging parent she lacked.  The tragedy is that despite their recognition of their sins, and their earnest, genuine desire to mortify them, they simply can’t – like dogs returning to their vomit, they are condemned to repeating the same mistake, even while they acknowledge their damning effects on themselves and their relationship with each other and their children.  In her autobiography, Patty repeatedly acknowledges Walter’s manifest superiority to Richard Katz, his aloof, hipster-than-thou best friend – his selflessness, his courage, his kindness, his unconditional and absolute love of herself.   But so great is her need for a competitive environment that she cannot refrain from pursuing Richard – his shrewd manner and aloofness present a challenge to tempting to ignore.  While Walter recognizes that there’s a significant problem in his marriage, he cannot help but view confrontation as synonymous with abuse, aggression, and domination – the very traits he abhorred in his father.  Since he cannot address the difficulty on his terms, and won’t attempt to on his wife’s, he retreats into his conservation work (again, into nature) and concentrates his energies on preserving his refuge, rather than repairing his relationship.

If the sociological statistics are a correct, then this is a very faithful portrayal of most contemporary American marriages – husbands and wives find themselves not just visited by their own sins, but hounded by those of their fathers, condemned to repeating their mistakes and suffering for wounds of others’ infliction.  Their frustration and disappointment are aggravated by the promises of saccharine self-help books and motivational speakers who readily offer Band-Aids for their cuts, but cannot provide a cure for the compulsive desire to cut.  The spouses that are fortunate enough to be able to recognize and own their problems are still powerless to find a solution – they cannot fix their problems because their being and way of being has been formed and developed by them.

Even though the story ends happily, with Walter and Patty reuniting after a six-year separation, it’s an uneasy happiness.  Although they’ve both been reconciled with their remaining family members, we don’t see any scene of reconciliation between Walter and Patty themselves.  Patty simply shows up at their summer home, and Walter simply lets her back in – there’re no apologies, no explanations, not even an attempt at an explicit resolve to do something differently.  One is tempted to close the book with the cynical expectation that it won’t be long before the whole cycle repeats itself again.

While it’s not a particularly uplifting read, Freedom is a faithful, well-written illustration of the sort of lives we as Christians have been called out of – the tragedy and agony of a life characterized by an endless repetition of sin and suffering for sin.  Although Walter and Patty pursue freedom, they’re hindered in their pursuit by their limited understanding of what true freedom is and what it’s for – they appear to view it as the absence of restraint; a casting off of the shackles that have bound them (i.e., the abuse and rejection of their parents, their pathological need for affirmation).  What they fail to realize (what they cannot realize) is that true freedom brings with it the power to act – to act wisely and well; to use one’s gifts, talents and resources for what is good and true.  Such is their (and our) sinful estate that we cannot attain this freedom in our own power – it can only be found in Christ.  Because he gave all of himself – his life, his being, his will – freely, we may take comfort in the fact that (unlike Walter and Patty) we are not condemned to these actions.  We may find ourselves looking for ultimate affirmation in our spouse, a sense of worth in our vocation, and liberation from the pain and trauma of our past, but we may rest in the knowledge that Christ has risen victorious for us, thereby freeing us from the devastating cycle of our sin.  It is in him, through the work of the Holy Spirit, that we are granted the freedom that not only breaks our bonds, but gives us the will and desire to use that freedom to bind ourselves both to himself and one another in love.




The Cricket On The Hearth

In Books on February 7, 2011 at 7:21 pm

The Cricket on the Hearth is meant to be a fairy story about the value of domestic harmony.  Just like A Christmas Carol, which is by far the most famous of Dickens’s five Christmas novellas (seriously, if you’ve never heard of Ebenezer Scrooge, I’m not sure we can be friends…), a supernatural element plays a significant part in the plot, revealing the truth to the various characters and offering them a chance to change their behavior before irreparable damage is done.  Although included in the canon of Dickens’s Christmas stories, The Cricket on the Hearth has nothing to do with celebrating the event of our Savior’s birth.  However, it does have everything to do with truth, love and forgiveness, which are integral components of Christian ideology.

The eponymous insect of The Cricket on the Hearth is first introduced as a harbinger of good fortune, and is gradually revealed to be a benevolent spirit; one of a tribe of modern-day Lares presiding over the hearth and home.   Mary ‘Dot’ Peerybingle, a beautiful and very young housewife, shyly reveals to her much older husband John that she has often heard the cricket chirping when worried or doubtful of her abilities as a homemaker, and says that its sound has always cheered and comforted her.   When slimy toy merchant Mr. Tackleton first insinuates that Dot does not care as much for John as she pretends (although what business it is of his, I am sure I don’t know), the chirping of the cricket soothes away John’s doubts, presenting him images of a joyful future instead.  And at the crisis of the story, when a distraught John contemplates murdering the man he thinks his wife is having an affair with, he is stopped by the cricket’s chirp with the gun actually in his hand.  The cricket manifests as a fairy spirit who contests John’s anger and hatred by showing him a series of visions: things Dot has done to make his home life cheerful and bright, all the little sacrifices she’s made for his sake, the tremendous influence she has had in making theirs a happy home.  This spirit does not actively prevent John from killing his supposed rival, but it reminds him of who he and his wife are, thus enabling him to step back and reconsider the justice of the conclusions he’s drawn.

In addition to benevolent supernatural forces, deception and blindness are major themes.  Edward Plummer, missing and presumed dead, returns home after a long absence to claim his betrothed bride May Fielding, only to find she is currently engaged to Tackleton…why he decides he has to disguise himself as an old man before he actually arrives in town is beyond me, except that it’s necessary to the rest of the plot.[1] So disguise himself he does, and then turns up to reveal his identity only to Dot (who is an old schoolmate of his as well as a devoted friend of May’s).   Dot decides to conceal this knowledge from her husband, but her secretive behavior makes John suspicious and very nearly destroys her marriage.  John has a streak of insecurity running deep just beneath his complacent surface, as shown by how easily he is disturbed by Tackleton’s insinuating hints about Dot.  And of course, Dot’s impassioned speech to May about why she shouldn’t marry an older man (thinking of Edward, who is patiently waiting in the wings in his scruffy old dude disguise and just generally being useless) doesn’t help matters—John thinks Dot is really talking about her own regrets, lamenting the loss of some ardent young suitor she once preferred but spurned in favor of her solid and steady old John.

Once he has convinced himself to put the gun away, a heartbroken John decides he was cruel to yoke himself to a beautiful and spirited woman so much younger than himself.   Although this particular story is devoid of Dickens’s usual social criticism, this passage has some interesting proto-feminist connotations—John recognizes that Victorian society does not give women much control, and also that this is unfair.  If a woman’s husband abandoned her, she was cast on the mercy of her relatives to protect and provide for her.  Although John forgives Dot for what he thinks is a poor choice in old boyfriends (having decided that she wasn’t actively cheating on him but is merely in love with an old flame), he still plans to ship her and their new baby off to live with her parents.   Divorce was not a feasible option, so she would have been free to remarry only once John had died (which, given the disparity in their ages, John hopes won’t be too late for her).

Over in the subplot we have another liar as well as literal blindness to contend with. Toymaker Caleb Plummer [2] constructs an elaborate web of lies with “innocent deceit” for his blind daughter Bertha.  He alters everything he fears would worry or pain her:  his own slowly declining health, the decrepit state of their home, their poverty, and even the character of their hard-hearted employer Mr. Tackleton.  Bertha trusts so implicitly in her father, that she falls in love with a man who does not actually exist: she believes that Tackleton is a wonderful man and a generous benefactor who cares deeply for their well-being.  She praises him for his supposed goodness even as he sneers at her, having decided within himself that she must be mentally disabled as well as blind to be so fond of him.[3] Caleb eventually has an epiphany and realizes that his lies have done Bertha more harm than good, and that he is obliged to come clean.  Bertha, though naturally reeling from the sudden comprehension that the world she thought she knew is completely imaginary, does not condemn him.  She, too, hears the chirping cricket on her hearth.  She knows that her father has acted out of love, and devoted his life to making hers as comfortable as possible.  Though she is initially hurt and upset that Caleb has altered her surroundings in her mind’s eye, Bertha loves him enough to forgive him.

I believe that Dickens chose to write a fairy tale emphasizing the value of domestic happiness because he was not very happy in his own marriage.  He’s also a big fan of marriages with a great disparity in age, probably because they tend to be founded more on mutual respect than lust, and also because both parties go into it knowing that they will have to work a little bit harder at their marriage rather than rely on that first blush of youthful love to carry them through the ‘honeymoon’ phase.  This idea comes up again in David Copperfield, in several moving scenes between Doctor Strong and his very young wife Annie (who are something like 60 and 25 years old, respectively).  In both cases, Dickens shows how the couple can overcome their difficulties and wind up by being even happier than ever before because they have aired their insecurities and doubts and dealt with them openly.

Brooke tried hard to make a case for the similarities between The Cricket on The Hearth and Othello—(I strongly suspect this is because she hasn’t actually read Cricket in its entirety) but I can’t in good conscience allow for the comparison.  I honestly don’t think they are enough alike to warrant it.  While Othello goes straight for the “my wife is impure therefore I must smite the false jade from the face of the earth” tack, John Peerybingle would rather avenge himself on his rival and then send his beloved wife away to a place where she would still be under his protection but he wouldn’t have to face the pain of his unrequited love for her.  He isn’t so much consumed by a jealous rage as brought low by the weight of his sorrow and regret—and he quickly blames himself for the whole situation, for being so foolish as to assume he was worthy of a superior woman like Dot.  And while Mr. Tackleton is a bitter old man with issues, and does happen to be the person who brings the supposed affair to John’s attention, he is definitely no Iago.  He doesn’t seek to purposefully hurt either Peerybingle—he just feels a sort of kinship to John because he too, is about to marry a much younger woman, and he seems to think this makes them members of the same Old Guys Rule Club.

In true Dickensian fashion, all of the various characters and loose plot points come together in a pretty little bow by the end:  the missing-and-presumed dead son returns to save his beloved from a loveless marriage to a horrible person (just in time to explain his actions to all the other characters and prevent further misunderstandings), the blind woman learns the truth from her well-meaning but deceptive father and wholeheartedly forgives her misguided parent, the heartbroken husband is overjoyed to find that his cherished wife was never unfaithful to him at all but merely a victim of appearances and her naive attempt to help an old friend keep a rather silly secret, the innocent wife proves that her character is without the slightest stain and she is gathered into her relieved husband’s waiting arms, and the cold, callous old man discovers his heart is not in fact made of stone and that he’d better shape up unless he wants to die alone.

And then everyone dances and eats cake—really, what else could you ask for in a heartwarming Christmas tale?

[1] Well, Edward later claims that he does not want to unduly influence May if she really is in love with another man, since he has been presumed dead for a while and their betrothal had been many years before—but why would you not want to influence your beloved and try to win her back if that were the case?  I say he’s a silly putz and should have just been honest and upfront with everyone from the jump…but then again I have a grand total of 0 bestsellers to my name and Dickens can go ahead and do just as he likes as far as I’m concerned.

[2] The father of aforementioned Edward Plummer, coincidentally, so apparently deception runs in the family

[3] So just because a woman seems to like you, she must be absolutely nuts, right?  What does this tell you about your own character, Mr. Tackleton?