Making the Heart Complete
A Pleasant Preservative from Want
Jane Austin describes the attitude of her character Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice. "Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.” Charlotte has become engaged to Mr. Collins, a man whom she doesn't love, in nineteenth century England. She explains to her friend Elizabeth, "I am not romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.”
We see Charlotte's choice as tragic today, but Charlotte takes a practical view of marriage and her circumstances. Observing marriages around her, she explains her belief that "Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance." Charlotte believes that it is of no benefit to know a partner well or to know of his faults before marriage. "They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation . . ." she proclaims. Indeed, Charlotte is happy, married to Collins, a man rather boorish and socially awkward. She enjoys being mistress of a home and having the social standing of a pastor's wife. But in Austin's time and place, Charlotte's life fails the ideal achieved by Jane and Lizzy Bennett, who marry advantageously, but for love.
Many have studied and written on the subject of success in relationships and marriage. Modern westerners expect a lot from their marriage partners. Our literature and entertainment heavily feature romance, the most common theme of either. In the modern western world, we have the luxury of choosing spouses based on personal preference and attraction, bases that would have been considered frivolous in times and places where marriages were arranged. Those arranged marriages were once common and still exist in parts of the world. There's a practically to the institution of arranged marriage, certainly. An arranged marriage isn't necessarily a loveless marriage. Until the 1950s, arranged marriages were common in China, with even workplaces getting involved sometimes. The idea was to "marry first, then fall in love." Where western marriages were seen as boiling hot at first and cooling down over time to the Chinese, the Chinese saw their unions as starting off warm and gradually heating up.
In the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, the daughters of Tevye, a Jewish father of girls in 1905 Russia, dream of the matchmaker pairing them with attractive mates. But they understand the harsh reality that the partners the matchmaker suggests will not likely be the men of their dreams. Tevye breaks with tradition and consents to allow his eldest daughter to marry a young man for love. It's an unusual idea in the community where matchmakers and parents choose life partners for the young and available with survival in mind. Later, his second daughter and the man she loves fail to ask permission to marry and merely ask their father's blessing. Tevye thinks about this further break from tradition and asks his wife of many years a question he hadn't considered before. "Do you love me?"
Nice to Know
Tevye's wife Golde brushes off the question at first, but Tevye implores her to answer, and she thinks about it. In song, Golde muses "Do I love you? For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow..." She wonders, "After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?" Tevye and Golde recall their wedding day, how nervous they were. Tevye's parents had assured him that he and his bride would learn to love each other.
Golde asks herself "Do I love him? For twenty-five years I've lived with him, fought him, starved with him, twenty-five years my bed is his." She comes to the conclusion, "If that's not love, what is?" Golde "supposes" she loves Tevye, and he, in turn "supposes" he loves her, too. After all the years of struggles and daily life, the couple recognizes that they love each other. It "doesn't change a thing," in their view, but they they take comfort in their mutual declaration. "It's nice to know."
Happy Ever Afters Struggling to survive poverty and persecution, Tevye and Golde, like so many other couples throughout history, never thought to aspire the the Disneyesque romance of which little girls in America and the west dream. It would be eighteen more years before, half a world away, Walt and Roy Disney would first begin to create and fourteen beyond that before Snow White and the Seven Dwarves introduced the beautiful Snow White and her handsome Prince, able to waken her from the sleeping death with love's first kiss. The story was actually quite an old tale, told by the brothers Grimm in 1857. The kiss is absent, but the prince does pine for and deeply love the princess in the glass coffin.
Today's marriages are supposed to be the stuff of fairy tales. Said one writer, through a fictional character, “Love’s about finding the one person who makes your heart complete. Who makes you a better person than you ever dreamed you could be. It's about looking in the eyes of your wife and knowing all the way to your bones that she’s simply the best person you’ve ever known.” (Julia Quinn, The Viscount Who Loved Me) More than the social and economic partnership of the arranged marriage or marriage of convenience, the modern single looks for that one person who completes his or her heart. Even Dr. Suess weighed in on love, “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.” Reality better than dreams...? It's an ambitious goal. Disney's love stories are a staple of American childhood, beautifully animated and presented through song and memorable characters. Disney heroines are beloved by children and adults. There is satisfaction in vicariously experiencing the joy of an ordinary or even mistreated girl finding the love that makes the heart complete and live happily ever after. But a few have wondered if Disney "ruined" our very real love lives and happily ever afters. Robert Epstein argued, admitting he is exaggerating somewhat, "Disney, you see, contributed to the failure of many marriages around the world. He did this by glamorizing and magnifying fairy tales that cause us — women, especially — to have unrealistic expectations about how successful romantic relationships are made and maintained." The truth is that marriage requires commitment and work, forgiveness and acceptance of reality without scriptwriters. It's a much more challenging adventure than just riding off the castle where the servants await, and happily ever after has been assured. A real Snow White or Cinderella would have real trials, even in such a castle, married to princes too perfect to exist in the real world.
A Human Offering
Real people have real weaknesses and foibles. Real life is full of surprises, pleasant and unpleasant. It's full of experiences and opportunities, some for which we aren't prepared. Real people get sick and fat and old and eventually die. Worse, some prematurely die, as so many women of the old days did in childbirth. Real life is challenging if not brutal.
Love is all the more remarkable in the real world of real people and real problems and real triumphs and joys. In that real world, real people make the choice to love, the choice to commit, the choice to share their lives. We live our days, however long they may be, happily and sadly and with excitement and disappointment and enthusiasm and hope and despair and exhaustion and boredom and annoyance and relief and appreciation and frustration and worry and anxiety and grief and pain and surprise and wonder and regret and satisfaction and joy. Those are the elements of our real ever afters. We work to make our own version of happily ever after in an imperfect world of imperfect people. Said Elizabeth Gilbert in Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, "To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow—this is a human offering that can border on miraculous."