As promised in yesterday's post, here is a list of scenarios about various ways people approach relationships and marriage in which love and other concerns might be in conflict.
Before presenting the list, I instructed my students to let memory and imagination run wild, to think of every dysfunctional relationship they'd either been in or witnessed.
A. Imagine that you go home and say, "Mom, Dad, guess what. I'm engaged. He's so great. He's a sculptor and, well, he's unemployed right now, and he just dropped out of school because he felt like his teachers couldn't really understand his vision but he's so talented, he's so great, and I'm going to drop out of school and go to work and support him until he makes it big." They say, "Um, OK, well, when can we meet him?" and you say, "When he gets out of rehab." I don't care what you say about marrying for love instead of more practical concerns--your parents would FREAK.
B. Imagine that a friend who grew up in a really conservative religious home in rural Iowa. She's always had a thing for bad boys, and she falls in love with this guy who spends all his money on his Harley. And he loves her too--he treats her really well--and they get engaged. Both families are HORRIFIED. Her family says, "Did you have to fall in love with a criminal?" His family says, "Did you have to fall in love with someone whose dad is going to call the cops as soon as someone lights up a joint at your reception?"
C. Imagine another friend. She's really smart, president of your sorority, has a 3.9 GPA, does all this other extra curricula stuff, gets accepted to Harvard medical school. Now, she loves Big Macs. And she finds an all-night McDonald's near her apartment in Cambridge and studies there. And she falls in love with the manager. He's a really nice guy but he dropped out of high school because he had a drug problem and his parents stuck him in rehab. He finally got a GED and he worked his way up the ladder at McDonald's and that is the extent of his ambition: he wants to work for McDonald's his whole life. They get engaged, and her family FREAKS. "You're going to be a radiologist and earn $300,000 a year and he's going to flip burgers his whole life and earn $30,000 a year! Can you really believe that is going to make you happy?" But is MONEY the ONLY issue? Then there are his friends. They HATE her. "She's f*ckin' bitch, she's such a snob, acts all high and mighty 'cause we drink Old Style, gets all mad when we want take him to boxing matches, blah blah blah."
D. Now imagine that your dad dumps your mom for a 19-year-old stripper. Who are they going to hang out with: his friends or hers? Will they HAVE any friends but each other? Will any of your siblings refuse to talk to him? Will you still talk to him?
E. How many of you know someone who broke up with a boyfriend or girlfriend because that person wasn't ambitious enough? Examples:
1. He's not on the football team any more, and I really want to date a football player because I'm a cheerleader, and that's just more fun
2. He asked me to marry him and I really love him, but all he wants to do is work for his dad and take over the farm. I want to travel, and I don't want to raise my kids in Truro, Iowa.
F. How many of you know someone who got dumped, and instantly went out and dated or made out with or slept with or MARRIED the first person who came along, just to prove that SOMEONE wanted them, that they weren't just going to be all heart-broken and sad over the creep who dumped them?
G. How many of you know someone who just can't stand to be alone? As in "I hate not having a boyfriend because I hate going to the movies by myself and it's no fun at parties if you don't already have a boyfriend and besides, I need somebody who, like, can fix my car and help me carry heavy things"–the issue of significant other as personal servant.
H. How many of you know someone who got married because they were pregnant or had gotten someone pregnant?
I. How many of you know someone whose favorite pastime is not just flirting, not just sleeping around, but trying to make people fall in love with them? How many of you have met a modern-day version (male or female) of Henry Crawford from Mansfield Park, who says, "I have two weeks to kill, and I want to make someone fall in love with me. I want her to smile at me, and keep a chair for me by herself wherever we are, and be all animation when I take it and talk to her; to think as I think, be interested in all my possessions and pleasures, try to keep me longer here in town, and feel when I go away that she will never be happy again. I want nothing more."
J. How many of you know someone who married for love, but who, as the years went by, either fell out of love, or found that they didn't love each other as much as they thought, or found that they couldn't stand to live together, and so got a divorce?
K. How many of you know someone who fell out of love but stayed in a bad marriage because of kids, or because they didn't have enough skills that they could get a decent job and support themselves if they left?
L. How many of you know someone who dated, got married, seemed to be completely in love with someone, then left the relationship because they'd realized they were gay?
M. How many of you know someone who got married just so they could get cheaper health insurance?
N. How many of you know someone who says, "I want to be a virgin when I get married, and I only want to have sex with a spouse I really love, my whole life." How about someone who says, "I want to get laid as often as possible by as many different people as possible." How many of you know people in between those two extremes? Now imagine how grossed out Austen would be--not just in a religious sense of sin, but in a sense of demonstrating a lack of self-worth and self-dignity-- if she could witness a Saturday night at some undergraduate meat market bar, all these girls just desperate to go home with some loser who is never going to speak to them again. Imagine her writing a book about that.
O. Now. Who can tell me about the dating and marriage practices among British people who own at least two houses, a huge house in the country as well as an apartment in London, who sends their kids to Oxford and who own at least one Rolls Royce and one Jaguar? OK. That is the modern version of the class of people that Austen is writing about, and if you don't know any of them today, you don't know that things have changed that much. I admit I don't know for sure, but my guess is that people of that class marry for much the same reasons as they did 200 years ago, and as evidence I offer the very public failure of a marriage between people of even higher classes, i.e., Charles and Diana--a marriage that was billed, by the way, as a love match, though we know now all about Camilla, and what Charles was really after in that marriage.
We have little room to take the moral high ground when it comes to relationships. Our legal system is better; our educational system is better; women have more rights and opportunities, but when it comes to the interpersonal stuff, I think it likely that on a whole, we date and have sex and get married and get divorced for reasons every bit as pragmatic and/or deplorable and/or convoluted and/or pure as any motives anyone had in Austen's day. Instead of thinking how relationships have changed since Austen's day, I want you to think about how they might be exactly the same. Your writing assignment for next week is to pick any relationship in Emma and to write about a relationship you personally have observed that parallels it closely in some way.