In light of Rhett’s interesting (and true!) thoughts on what novels do for us, I was intrigued to read Francis Watson’s rather critical comments of their form in western literature:
The assumption that ‘love’ (or ‘romantic love’) is the primary basis for marriage is often said to be an innovation of the modern West. It is certainly a central preoccupation of the novel, the literary genre most characteristic of the modern West. The novel holds up a mirror to what is held to be the reality of ‘love and marriage’; it is the image of a representation that arises from the reality and exercises an influence over it, although the reality is never reducible to the representation…
Even in the traditional novel, the link between love and marriage is in fact contingent. Marriage is often an end (the end of the novel), and not a transition to a new beginning. If marriage is the goal of love but not the context of its continuing development, is marriage tacitly presented as the end of love?
Where, at the beginning of the novel, marriage has already occurred, love may well be sought outside marriage; the rendering of a love that both issues in marriage and develops and matures within it is much less usual…The more recent convention that ‘love’ is the precondition not of marriage but of ‘sex’ is a natural development of tradition rather than a reaction against it. ‘Modern’ and ‘traditional’ novels tend to display an ambivalence towards marriage combined with an unshakable faith in ‘love’ itself…
These novels are familiar with the assumption that marriage is the proper context and home of love, but, in declining to make this assumption narratively plausible, their tendency is to induce scepticism toward it.
Watson’s point could easily be made against Shakespeare as well as the modern novel. But his association with the novel as the predominantly Western form of literature and the rise of romance in the West as the basis for marriage bears more reflection.
Certainly some literature stands out in contrast to Watson’s critique, but not a whole lot is coming to mind right now.
Are there novels that present marriage not only as the culmination of romantic love, but also as its context and home (that is, husbands and wives who are still ‘romantic’)?
Make your suggestions in the comments. I’m interested to hear them.