As Charles McGrath pointed out in a recent New York Times essay, “human beings
do foolish things, especially when love and money are involved.” Ever quick to capitalize on the more interesting byproducts of human error, writers have taken this circumstance and run with it to astounding effect.
1. Elizabeth Willard from Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
Anderson spared his native milieu no pity in this collection of short stories fictionalizing the author’s young adulthood. In the story “Death,” Anderson paints a rending portrait of his mother, who employs the comfort of her one friend, Dr. Reefy, to relieve the disappointment of her marriage to a bland hotelkeeper. It is to Reefy that Anderson gifts one of the best epigrams about love yet committed to print: “‘Love is like a wind stirring the grass beneath trees on a black night,’ [Reefy] had said. ‘You must not try to make love definite. It is the divine accident of life. If you try to be definite and sure about it and to live beneath the trees, where soft night winds blow, the long hot day of disappointment comes swiftly and the gritty dust from passing wagons gathers upon lips inflamed and made tender by kisses.’”
2. Laura Brown from The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Cunningham’s The Hours tracks the fates of three women, none of whom benefit from their relationships with men. Laura Brown, whose storyline transpires in post-World War II Los Angeles, bears the particularly unenviably fate of having entered a lukewarm marriage. She loves her husband and son, though life as a housewife leaves her with a persistent, existential itch. She mothers when she would rather be reading; she funnels her artistic instinct into the baking of cakes. The novel reveals to her something of her blinkered horizons, but for the most part, she remains unable to articulate her own frustration.
3. Tertius Lydgate/Rosamond Vincy from Middlemarch by George Eliot
The characters in Middlemarch could easily populate this list by themselves, but in the interest of offering you lists the finest quality, we’ll restrict ourselves to discussing only one of the novel’s misbegotten love pairings. After moving to the novel’s titular town, intent on ministering to its citizens and conducting medical research, Doctor Tertius Lydgate marries the gorgeous Rosamond Vincy. Shortly after the marriage, Lydgate realizes that he has not secured for himself a passive domestic partner and Rosamond realizes that she has not secured for herself a husband intent upon upward social mobility. In the ensuing power struggle, Rosamond ultimately proves the more determined, though she winds up exacting irreparable damage on them both in the course of her victory.
4. Charles Bovary from Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
As mentioned by Vladimir Nabokov in his essay on Flaubert’s masterpiece, one of Madame Bovary’s multitudinous ironies lies in the fact that fickle, frustrated Emma Bovary has at her disposal the attentions of a man who adores her: her husband Charles Bovary. Meek, untalented and unambitious, Charles proves unable to satisfy his wife’s thirsts for status and adventure. He finishes the novel bankrupt, his wife lost to suicide and his energies unable to pay the costs of his ardor.
5. Isabel Archer from Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
The wife oppressed by a boorish husband has grown through repetition into a cliché, but James managed to subject his protagonist to a variation on this theme several times subtler than the norm (and, in the end, of a far greater cruelty). Beautiful, intelligent and, after the novel’s midpoint, rich, Isabel Archer has her choice of mates on two continents, but selects the effete, prickly Gilbert Osmond instead. An aesthete, egoist and mild monster, Osmond makes clear that he values Isabel in the same manner in which he values an oil painting or fresco, and he expects from her a similar level of pliability. Through emotional extortion, Osmond ensures that his bride cleaves to him or else risks the desiccation of her pride.
6. Viv Stamper from Sometimes A Great Notion by Ken Kesey
The women of Sometimes A Great Notion, Kesey’s epic recounting of the Stamper family’s exploits, wind up in difficult situations, often precipitated by the maniacal determination of the Stamper men. Viv marries Hank Stamper, current scion of the clan, and as that love fades into something more utilitarian, she winds up an instrument in Hank’s brother’s long-in-coming revenge plot.
7. Fiona from “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro
One of the most impressive qualities of Munro’s short fiction (and there are plenty) is that it’s almost impossible to distinguish her protagonists from her villains. “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” one of Munro’s best-known stories, relates the tale of a Canadian college professor named Grant. After a young marriage to his then-girlfriend Fiona, Grant embarks on a career of timid philandering — at least until Fiona begins suffering from dementia, after which Grant places her in a live-in care facility. Grant spends most of the story trying to render her a final kindness, and in the end, achieves only qualified success. Does he betray his wife? Certainly. Does he also show her some degree of love? Yes, though it’s ultimately too little and far, far too late.
8. Oedipus from Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Sophocles’ great tragedy saw its first performance in the fifth century B.C., meaning that at least two thousand four hundred years have transpired in which Western literature has failed to set itself to the task of portraying a happy marriage. The titular king famously kills his father and then commits incest with his mother. Upon discovering the truth of his deeds, he gouges out his eyes, creating an archetypical example of (among other things) the steep cost that love can exact on oneself and the people for which one cares most.
9. Newland Archer from The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Wharton spent her literary career illuminating the high price paid by those residing on the “small, slippery pyramid” of New York high society. In The Age of Innocence, she recounts the tale of one of that society’s products and choice victims — Newland Archer. Heir to the fortune of a fine family, he wanders through life amidst the blissful comfort of his social surroundings, at least until he meets Countess Ellen Olenska. Divorced and of modest means, the Countess falls well outside of Archer’s marriageable set. He falls in love with her, but winds up committing himself to a loveless pairing with a social equal to avoid the opprobrium of his community.
10. Frank/April Wheeler from Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Even if he didn’t invent suburban desperation, Yates can at least claim credit for having established it as a literary motif. Revolutionary Road, published in 1961, recounts a tail of clipped ambition and self sabotage so mordant as to verge on melodrama. Frank and April Wheeler live in a Connecticut suburb where they pine and fret over the oozing-away of their youth. A last-ditch plan to run off and remake themselves in Paris yields horrific results, but in truth, their fates were sown much earlier by their own shortcomings.
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