Love and Divorce: Through the Eras of American Literature

In A Modern Instance, Howells is concerned about thesentimentalism in popular literature and in the press. Howells sought to treatdivorce as a serious literary subject. Howells is aware of this split inAmerican literature between mass sentimentalism and literary choice. Yet,rather than abandon the social for the areas of romance, he calls for realismin which nothing is “unworthy of notice.” Howells writes—in contrast to theromantic writer—the realist, “feels in every nerve the equality of things andthe unity of me; his soul is exalted, not by vain shows and shadows and ideals,but by realities, in which the truth alone lives.” Divorce then, is one of thetruths of society that he sought to explore. In doing so, Howells flaws uponthe social history of divorce in America.

He illustrates how divorce reflectswestern expansion, urbanization, and technology as well as changing genderroles and rising expectations of emotional fulfillment in love and marriage.Furthermore, he demonstrates how the tension between individual desire andsocial duty lies at the core of debates about divorce. In Marry Me: A Romance, John Updike brings together manyconcerns of the prior divorce novels. Using similar symbols, Updike creates anarrative with three endings. This suggests an indirectness created by thestrain between the self and society, realism and romance, husband, wife, andmistress. The narrative variability of the endings demonstrates how unbalancedthe structure of meaning has become in the late twentieth century.

Because botheventually get you to the same place, he leaves his central character with thefalse choice of traveling west or east on one of the Virgin Islands. Updikeprovides the reader with a tender metaphor for the dilemmas that divorcesymbolizes. Furthermore, Updike publishes this during the same year he filesfor divorce himself.

While Updike may not be fictionalizing his experiencesopenly, there still seems to be noteworthy connections between his writing andhis life that propose that divorce offers him new ways of thinking about bothhis life and his writing.In Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, we meetanother well-educated and affluent male who suffers immensely when faced with adivorce. Ralph Marvell, like Howell’s Ben Halleck, is a marginal character. Heis of the elite aristocrats in New York. Much like Halleck, he is depicted asfragile and ineffectual, as decomposing from the heaviness of the moralconflict that divorce intensifies and shoves in his face. However, unlikeHalleck, Ralph actually experiences a divorce first hand, in which he is forcedinto against his will by a dominant woman. He also holds a prominent importancein society’s most desirable crowd, a social status that the crippled Hallecknever quite attains.

When divorce influences him to face the values he inherited,these values fail him, resulting with him taking his own life, making it “allright” for Undine in the end (Wharton, Custom 376). With his passing, theaudience sees Undine’s rise, and Wharton creates a critique of both the oldmanner, represented by Ralph, and the present manner, represented by Undine,thematically studying their marriage and the difficulties surrounding aprobable union of the two. Throughout the novel, Wharton reviews the boundariesaccompanying divorce. However, she approaches the subject a bit differentlythan Howells. With his aesthetic of the ordinary, Howells recognized theautonomous potential of divorce on an aesthetic and social scale. Moreover, noone in his novel benefits from it as they do here. With Undine, Wharton shows us the mobility extended bydivorce and alludes to the democratic potential that Howells admired. Whartonillustrates that divorce gives Undine the opportunity to remarry and startover.

Previously restricted to her, these marriages give her entry into arenas,moreover, enabling her to move up the social ladder. However, with eachadvancement, she evens the field and is compelled to continue to strive forsomething better—previously unattainable—leaving behind a trail of refuse mostvividly represented here by Ralph. This is a family that is based on matrimonyin order to maintain an elite limited commonality that characteristicallyseparates them from others. Divorce functions as a restraint in his circle, nota beneficial opportunity. It fosters a progressively shifting scene thatdisrupts a prior way of life and eventually bringing ruin to Ralph.

Divorce has had a powerful influence on American cultureboth factually and metaphorically. The highlights of symbolic aspects of thehistory of divorce in American literature provide a useful foundation forstudying divorce in American culture. The literature spans the last century,through which divorce has become a normality. Today, it is a common, everydayoccurrence. Therefore, it becomes what is considered the bane of the Americannation as well as popular material for lighthearted sitcoms and romanticmovies. Moreover, it has also pointed to such inconsistencies distinctive inAmerican ideology that make it a suitable focus for American literature. Whilethe subject of divorce is not as controversial today as it was during the erain which Howells, Wharton, and Updike were writing, its primacy speaks to theimportance of understanding the early impact it had on society and on the themeof love and romance in American literature.

This is especially true consideringthat the divisive issue today is not so much divorce as it is marriage and theway in which we define it and one that still at its core revolves aroundquestions of morality and democracy. Given the significance of marriage insociety and subsequently the essential role it plays in the history of theAmerican novel, a close look at how authors have formally and thematicallyaddressed the subject over the years can foster valuable insight about itschanging nature and shape. Like these realists who shift our attention to apast that they simultaneously challenged, it behooves us to follow suit andconsider the structural foundations on which our current understanding of theissues rest—more than a century later.