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Are disastrous marriages the exception or the rule?

April 29, 2011

Sarah J. Young has an excellent post on Dostoevskii as “a specialist in disastrous marriages,” including this bit on disastrous potential marriages:

One could say that the plot of The Idiot is almost entirely constructed around prospective unions – Totskii and Aleksandra Epanchina, Nastasia Filippovna and Gania, Gania and Aglaia, Rogozhin and Nastasia Filippovna, Myshkin and Nastasia Filippovna, Myshkin and Aglaia, Aglaia and Evgenii Pavlovich – most of which look pretty awful when you think about them. And Aglaia’s marriage in the epilogue is so comically bad – not just to a fake count, but a Pole and a Catholic to boot – that even if you don’t like her (and I don’t), you wonder quite what she did to deserve what is in Dostoevsky’s eyes a fate worse than death.

Read the whole thing. (It took me longer than I should admit to realize that  “a good antidote for today” refers to the royal wedding.)

The contrarian in me wondered if marriages tend to be disastrous across literature, because, to paraphrase a contemporary writer whose name escapes me, who would read a book called How Happy We Were, How Wonderful Everything Was, and What We Ate?

I had to admit that outside of Dostoevskii it doesn’t take long to find happy marriages in Russian literature: Kitty and Levin in Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina, the childless but mutually devoted Tuberozovs in Leskov’s Cathedral Folk, the heroic dekabristki in Nekrasov’s Russian Women. An interesting case is Pushkin’s “The Snowstorm,” where the ending suggests that good marriages are storybook miracles.

That said, on the way to those I thought of many horrible marriages: adultery and suicide for the Karenins, jealousy and murder by Pozdnyshev in “The Kreutzer Sonata,” murder of the jealous husband and his father in Leskov’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.”

There are also what you might call “bad but ordinary” marriages that don’t qualify as disasters: Tat’iana’s marriage without love at the end of Eugene Onegin, or Natal’ia Pavlovna and Lidin’s adultery without tragedy in the comic Count Nulin. Also, many actual or potential marriages lead to tragedy, but for reasons extrinsic to the couple. To take yet another Pushkin poema, it’s tragic that Evgenii loses his fiancée in The Bronze Horseman, but the loss is caused by forces much greater than the two of them. Or to go to a less famous work, Parasha does get to marry her beloved in Vsevolod Krestovskii’s A Death in Spring, but the miserable conditions they endure in bondage and after being manumitted rob them of happiness.

And there’s a darkly comic strain of writing about marriages as disastrous precisely because they are ordinary. Think of the barber and his wife in Gogol’s “The Nose“:

— Сегодня я, Прасковья Осиповна, не буду пить кофию, — сказал Иван
Яковлевич, — а вместо того хочется мне съесть горячего хлебца с луком.
(То есть Иван Яковлевич хотел бы и того и другого, но знал, что было
совершенно невозможно требовать двух вещей разом, ибо Прасковья Осиповна очень не любила таких прихотей.) «Пусть дурак ест хлеб; мне же лучше, — подумала про себя супруга, — останется кофию лишняя порция». И бросила один хлеб на стол.

The linguistic representation of it is unique and incomparable, but the underlying idea of how men and women should be and what marriage makes them into is an old and familiar one. The implicit ideas about gender are different, but the pessimism about typical marriages is the same in Nekrasov’s “Troika” (1846):

Поживешь и попразднуешь вволю,
Будет жизнь и полна и легка…
Да не то тебе пало на долю:

За неряху пойдешь мужика.

Завязавши под мышки передник,
Перетянешь уродливо грудь,
Будет бить тебя муж-привередник

И свекровь в три погибели гнуть.

От работы и черной и трудной
Отцветешь, не успевши расцвесть,
Погрузишься ты в сон непробудный,

Будешь нянчить, работать и есть.

И в лице твоем, полном движенья,
Полном жизни, — появится вдруг
Выраженье тупого терпенья

И бессмысленный, вечный испуг.

In other words, “find me no find, catch me no catch.”

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