‘I PROMISE to love, honor and obey,’ says the girl. ‘ With all my worldly goods I thee endow,’ the man answers, substantiating her vow. It is the eternal duet of the heartstring and the pocket nerve. The biological adventure is transformed into the journey of life — this is no episodic undertaking! ‘Till death us do part,’ says the priest, and down the years the long road stretches, the road of consecrated integrity — into the gates of oblivion. The Bishop blesses the couple, smiles at them the subtle smile of the celibate who has seen so much life flow past his barred windows. ‘You have just agreed to the most difficult contract in the world,’ he says by way of parting advice.
It is a contract made in desire and ratified in self-sacrifice. She has promised to love him, whether he supports her or not, and he has sworn that he will support her, whether she loves him or not — and every day he may become less of a hero and she more of an expense! He has promised to love, too — but hunger is now his headmaster, for it can kill love, but love can only create more hunger.
If warnings could teach youth, marriage would be approached with caution, for the marriage failure is the basis for most of the modern drama, the movies, and the latest novels.
Fifty years ago the theatre took the fairy-tale perspective of marriage. ‘ He married Her, and they lived happily ever after ‘ was the climax of most of the early nineteenth-century plays. The winning of a lady was so fatiguing there was no energy left for the record of her keeping.
The younger Dumas rescued woman from the romantic subterfuge in which she had been hidden for half a century and made marriage the dramatic setting for the eternal conflict between desire and duty. His ideas passed to England, and the problem play began. It did not have Gallic candor, but the accent was shifted from mid-Victorian morality and placed on circumstance.
The new novel came across the Channel. Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope receded before the one universal and insoluble topic. No matter how brightly a book began, it ended on the minor note, which left the reader still searching for the chord.
There is little help for the individual in all this frank discussion, except the satisfaction of feeling that his case is always before the public. One lays down the modern novel with the feeling that sex has been treated too sectionally; there is a protest — an ‘arrangement ‘ even in the anarchy of modern emotion; it is the fairy-tale technique again!
Russian literature has more of a vista for the personal reader. The Russian interprets rather than creates. There is no ‘pattern’ in his representation. It leaves one with the feeling of the vastness of life and the futility of the human protest.
This larger view, which is a spiritual substitute for happiness, is literature’s great consolation: it is the echo of the ancient cry, ‘Lift me to the rock that is higher than I.’
There is no mending of shattered love, but there are many ways to avoid the shattering. Manners are perhaps the chief ingredient of married happiness, and the closer the relation, the more they are needed. They are the smiling facades behind which our changing moods can rearrange themselves. They are the technique of Christianity — the daily symbols of domestic interchange, stamped with the highest impulses of the heart. They are the high tribute to the dignity of others and the servants of the spiritual aristocrat, that enable him to sit calm and unmolested in his sanctuary.
‘Honored Sir* and ‘Honored Madam’ may have saved many a situation from coarse violence. They were the customs of people who knew that sincerity was only sometimes a beautiful thing. Formality preserves intimacy, and independence is a bond for entwining.
The French have a saying: ‘ Unhappy the wife who watches the door’; unhappy the man who unlatches that door! There is nothing so exhausting as relativity. Some women spend their lives looking wistfully through the windowpanes — like Penelope. They might remember that, although Ulysses occasionally visited his home town, his prow was always pointing toward the Sirens.
The sense of always being waited for is fatal to the adventure of life. There is a wild rider to far horizons in every man. Woe to the woman who holds the bridle —she will be dragged; and if she tethers him like a ruminant, he will break the rope and not come back!
There is nothing so exhausting as the weight of a merging personality. Why should a man come for refreshment to a carbon copy of himself?
Last month a man was arrested for desertion after twelve years of faithful married life. He said that he had been coming home as usual, that he had seen his wife and his children through the window, that he had seen them every night, and that he could n’t bear it. A fine coerced him back to his setting — but he conveys a lesson: Crime is often a common impulse, magnified and sustained, and his impulse was self-preservation. He was escaping from a supplementary picture of his own conformity. He said, ‘Your honor, if she’d only have hit me, I never would have left her.’
Man’s peculiar menace is the menace of the good housekeeper. Law and order are good things, but they must be watched; they have a tendency to develop into machinery! A machine house moves by the fuel of many personalities, each intent on adjusting one to its perfections. Its master cannot become part of its activity except at stated moments, without upsetting its entire organization. Any temperamental dash on the part of its owner endangers its delicate adjustments. I have seen a rich man waiting for dinner in his own house, as if it were an incoming express train with a recurrent twenty-four-hour opportunity.
If he is too late, he tiptoes to the Club, for it requires too much courage to draw a piece of toast from its underground sources. A chop is not a mere chop, it blooms like an orchid above deep interlacing roots; and a cup of tea passes by a chain of ascending power to the surface presentation of a silver salver.
In this remoteness of source lies another danger. It deadens the patriarchal feeling in the family. It is hard to convert one’s bread and butter into a fighting father; the road is too long!
A woman’s greatest danger is marriage with an egoist — he is fatal in a home, and the credit of his rapid disappearance is due to the modern woman. He must have invented the term ‘wife,’ deriving it from the verb vibrare, to tremble.
There was only one melody in the household of the trembling wife: the melody of the master’s voice. There were no discords — but there were no harmonies; fear was the great solvent of divergence. Modern marriage has been lifted to the requirements of an art — for there must be art in polyphonic harmony, and long habits of harmony bring, through their golden intricacies, the glory of the finale.
Of course there cannot always be harmony — that would be insipid; but at least the cigarette has placed the family quarrel on an equal basis. A few years ago a man took his deadly aim during the moment of inhalation, and a woman could only stammer before his deliberate front. Now she has her moment of preparation, and the round is a fair game.
No dispute was ever settled according to logic: the solution of a difference lies far deeper than its inherent justice. It is not the unanswerable premise, but the flavor of a dinner, or the mood of an hour, that brings harmony. And harmony is better than justice, for a woman who is always right is apt to be tiresome, and it is pleasant to be able to love one’s wife for her follies. The foolish wise woman is recorded in the new Irish literature, always irrational and illogical; she is better than right — she disdains to be right, and she is never wrong!
A woman’s best quality is her ability to respond to demand. She can sparkle with a thousand facets, or be flattened to the surface of a gray marble slab, according to the face that looks at her.
That is why it is so important for her to avoid an egoist, for an egoist is a smotherer.
He has the heavy hand of possession, and he is always moulding his wife to some preconceived idea. His self-consciousness about her is abnormal; he cannot bear to see so intimate a part of himself outside his own jurisdiction. ‘Conformity, my dear, conformity,’ he says, not knowing that all the dynamics of life lie in divergence. Who has not seen them, these pale listless women, developing not according to their innateness but for the dominant eye of the master.
The French say a woman’s charm lies in her au delà. Let a man not domesticate his ‘Princesse Lointaine.’ Her feet may walk beside him, but he must not clip her wings for soaring; and he might remember that in every soul there is a volume of music, and a true leader calls forth the strains one by one, until in a full harmony they rise and fall and are gathered to his gesture.