I always hated it when my heroines got married. As a child, I remember staring at the cover of “The First Four Years,” willing myself to feel pleased — as I knew I was meant to — that Laura Ingalls had wed Almanzo “Manly” Wilder and given birth to baby Rose. I understood that despite the hail storms, diphtheria outbreaks, and other agrarian misery that Wilder chronicled in the last of her “Little House” books, Laura’s marriage and motherhood were supposed to be read as a happy ending. Yet, to me, it felt unhappy, as if Laura were over. And, in many ways, she was.
The images on the covers of previous “Little House” books, drawn by Garth Williams in the editions I owned, had been of Laura in motion, front and center: gamboling down a hillside, riding a horse barefoot, having a snowball fight. Here she was, stationary and solidly shod, beside her husband; the baby she held in her arms was the most lively figure in the scene. Laura’s story was coming to a close. The tale that was worth telling about her was finished once she married.
It was the same with “Anne of Green Gables” ’ Anne Shirley, whose days of getting her best friend Diana Barry drunk and competing at school with rival Gilbert Blythe were over when, at last, after three volumes of resistance and rejected proposals, she gave in and married Gilbert. Beloved Jo March, who, in “Little Women,” subverted the marriage plot by not marrying her best friend and neighbor Laurie, came to her clunky, connubial end by getting hitched to avuncular Professor Bhaer. And Jane Eyre: Oh, smart, resourceful, sad Jane. Her prize, readers, after a youth of fighting for some smidgen of autonomy? Marrying him: the bad-tempered guy who kept his first wife in the attic, wooed Jane through a series of elaborate head games, and was, by the time she landed him, blind and missing a hand.
It was supposed to be romantic, but it felt bleak. Paths that were once wide and dotted with naughty friends and conspiratorial sisters and malevolent cousins, with scrapes and adventures and hopes and passions, had narrowed and now seemed to lead only to the tending of dull husbands and the rearing of insipid children to whom the stories soon would be turned over, in pallid follow-ups like “Jo’s Boys” and “Anne of Ingleside.” My dismay, of course, was partially symptomatic of the form. Coming-of-age-tales, bildungsroman, come to their tautological ends when their subjects reach adulthood. But embedded in the structure of both literature and life was the reality that for women, adulthood — and with it, the end of the story — was marriage.
Marriage, it seemed to me, walled my favorite fictional women off from the worlds in which they had once run free, or, if not free, then at least forward, with currents of narrative possibility at their backs. It was often at just the moment that their educations were complete and their childhood ambitions coming into focus that these troublesome, funny girls were suddenly contained, subsumed, and reduced by domesticity. Later, I would learn that Shakespeare’s comedies ended with wedlock and his tragedies with death, making marriage death’s narrative equivalent and supporting my childhood hunch about its ability to shut down a story. My mother, a Shakespeare professor, would note wistfully to me that some of the Bard’s feistiest and most loquacious heroines, including Beatrice in “Much Ado about Nothing,” ceased to have any lines after their dramatically conclusive marriage alliances.
Weren’t there any interesting fictional women out there who didn’t get married as soon as they became grown-ups, I wondered, even as a kid.
From “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation,” by Rebecca Traister. Copyright ©2016 by Rebecca Traister. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.