“Had we ever been in love, or was marriage a pre-packaged dance in the service of patriarchy?”
Sartre said “Hell is other people” and if you want contemporary rendering of that thesis, try Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel, Gone Girl. It details the breakdown of a marriage in a manner that is preposterous, blackly funny and, for many marriages I’ve seen, hideously accurate.
I grew up with Edward Albee’s caustic vision of marriage in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? His play debuted on Broadway in 1962 and was emblematic of a cultural shift that held conventional views of postwar marriage up to damning scrutiny. It depicts an internecine battle of wills between a university assistant professor and his daughter-of-the-dean faculty wife. On a booze-soaked summer night, their relationship’s psychological foundation and pretensions are stripped away in a witty and vicious battle that escalates to a near-murderous level. Now considered to be among the greatest theatrical works of the 20th century, the play was a milestone in middle class disillusionment.
While Flynn’s novel may not find a comparable place in the contemporary canon, it’s an electrifying update of Albee’s themes from fifty years ago. But a lot has happened since 1962. The intervening years gave us a renewed feminist movement and its qualified embrace by mainstream culture. We’ve endured the right-wing onslaught of the Reagan-Bush years, 911, loss of civil rights for the poor and non-whites, continuing disappointment in the Obama regimes, and the creation of a total surveillance state guarding a cultural juggernaut of wealth and celebrity that has made cynicism a social virtue.
The book plays with contemporary attitudes about women’s oppression and the patriarchy in a manner so wrenching, so deliciously, analytically incisive, that I was exhausted by the time I finished. It reflects truths found in the most ardent feminist literature of decades ago – not just pleas for equal rights before the law, but – “radical” analyses of women’s ridiculous, dehumanizing and generally vicious oppression in patriarchal society. But this is merely the backdrop to a story of a young married couple groping towards an authentic life together.
It’s a truism that the sociological odds are stacked against women – hardly a controversial opinion among thoughtful people. However, on the front lines of personal and marriage relationships, the struggle for liberation is constant, unapologetic, sometimes deadly, and not always relegated to women. In our so-called “post-feminist” era, a slightly-leveled playing field now witnesses a struggle for domination by two sides (men and women) using rather unmatched weapons. Thus begins the story of Nick and Amy: five years into a yuppified New York marriage, their fortunes change, and they take reluctant refuge in Nick’s midwestern home town. They bring with them a complex private lexicon of games, language and shared cultural references typical of educated middle class people. With some trepidation, they’re sailing into mid-marriage, a period in which romance often fades, sex becomes humdrum, and many couples watch the reasons which first drew them together slowly disintegrate.
It emerges that the institution of bourgeois marriage – shored up by social custom and masked by tradition – is the arena for baleful struggles over which hangs an uneasy peace: placid, sexless unions where child-rearing is fetishized and a joyless calm infuses a pyrrhic victory of mutual misery. This is a pithy subject, perhaps the pithiest of all, and halfway through Gone Girl, I found myself questioning the validity of my thirty years of marriage. Were the radical feminists of forty years ago – Shulamith Firestone, Andrea Dworkin, Germaine Greer – right after all? Had we ever been in love, or was marriage a pre-packaged dance in the service of patriarchy?
Gone Girl is a story of the manipulation and deception that married couples may inflict on one another, carried to bloodcurdling satiric extremes that kept me racing along, turning every delicious page. Structured as a suspense novel, with equal time given to the inner thoughts of Nick and Amy, its married protagonists, author Flynn depicts the war of the sexes as one-sided: with use of their physical superiority proscribed, men frequently feel outsmarted and outflanked by women. Women’s demonstrable oppression (in social terms) only makes the situation more confusing, frustrating and infuriating for men. In desperation, both sides sometimes dream of murder. I suspect that statistics regarding wife beating largely reflect male rage at their perceived psychological and emotional impotence around women.
The complaints that Amy has about her husband Nick would please the most meticulous and committed feminist. I squirmed repeatedly at her contemptuous description of her husband’s weakness, pathetic philandering, underestimation of his wife’s intelligence, and her own easy ability to wreak not only revenge but gain the psychological upper hand at every turn. If one were an alien assigned to read this book as a primer on human relationships, s/he would conclude that Earth’s humans were divided into two species with irreconcilable needs, and in which the “females” dominated the “male” with ease. Does this make Gone Girl an ironic vision of feminist triumph?
Yes and no. I think it goes deeper than that. Contemporary marriage and the nuclear family are largely modern inventions, which, according to Frederich Engels, are the cornerstone of bourgeois property relations. Inheritance and private ownership are preserved by women’s subservience to property-owning men who confidently pass worldly wealth to assured heirs. Broadly speaking, women are the chattel of men, a state of affairs only haphazardly and infrequently addressed by liberalized laws regarding women’s rights. In ironic recompense, nature seems to have blessed women with superior analytical and manipulative powers. Despite male privileges – which are vast and ubiquitous amongst all social classes – women have the upper hand because they’re smarter, although the phrase “emotional intelligence” may be more precise. Even so, with the odds stacked against them, some women may reasonably be tempted to become outlaws in pursuit of freedom. Amy’s quest is shocking, brilliant and – while testing the reader’s indulgence – wholly understandable.
I suspect that many men live in quiet terror of their wives. In millions of homes, we see men who’ve accepted the idea that it’s uniquely their responsibility to please women, to “keep them happy”. Decades of mass unemployment haven’t vanquished the idea that men are obligated to take slave jobs to support women and their children, despite women’s celebrated rise into middle management and sometimes beyond. Meanwhile, men endure ridicule of their sexuality and masculinity, while at the same time being condemned for their privileges and superior status. Immobilized by contemporary condemnations of men as a sex, most husbands I know wind up like Gone Girl’s husband Nick: sheepish puppy dogs and “perfect fathers.”
Gone Girl’s central characters reach this average state-of-affairs in a white-knuckles ride that moves fast enough to out-manoeuvre reader objections to its implausibilities. En route, it plumbs the depths of paranoia and suspicion, and posits a disturbing vision of the central antipathy that humans, in their fundamental terrified Sartrean alone-ness, have for one another. It’s a harrowing journey and in its raucous contempt for the culture that spawns it, achieves a cultural resonance reminiscent of Edward Albee’s Virginia Woolf over fifty years ago.