|Russian edition of Anna Karenina |
Moral values change with time. They also vary according to religion, culture, geography and political inclination. Your inability to relate to a plot, or to the ending of a novel, may be linked to your own views and beliefs. So before you throw that book against the wall, consider the context of the novel and its author. Romantic relationships are not treated the same way by writers of different eras and cultures, and the fate of “forbidden” loves are dependent on the social conventions of their place and time.
I could never understand why Edith Wharton had chosen to keep Newland and Ellen apart at the end of The Age of Innocence. Hadn’t they suffered enough? (I even complained about it here). This past week, I finally understood her reasons. And I owe it all to Ronald Tobias’ 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them. (Thanks Stephanie for recommending it!)
Set in 1870’s New York, Newland Archer is engaged to May Welland. When May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, abandons her husband in Europe and moves to New York with the intention of divorcing him, May’s family is outraged. They recruit Newland to convince Ellen to go back to her husband and forget all about the divorce. Newland, however, becomes fascinated with Ellen and the two of them fall in love. But Newland is a man of honor and marries May nonetheless. Time doesn’t subdue his feelings for Ellen and he is determined to leave May for Ellen. That is, until May announces she’s pregnant. Ellen returns to Europe and Newland stays with May until she dies (twenty-six years later!) Already an old man, Newland and his son visit Paris, where Ellen now lives. Newland’s son insists they visit her, but Newland refuses to go to her apartment and walks away.
According to Tobias, forbidden loves never end up happily and the lovers must “pay their overdue bill to society” (most of the time with death). “Society, it seems, never loses.” (Tobias, pg.224) Since divorce was condemned during Wharton’s lifetime, she couldn’t have given her protagonists a happy ending even though both were free to be together.
For a modern viewer, the notion that divorce would have been punished with unhappiness seems unconceivable (at least in the Western world). For us, the power of love should trample appearances and societal norms. “Love conquers all” has become the mantra of most works of fiction. Perhaps if a contemporary author had written The Age of Innocence, Newland and Ellen would have been together in the end.
The Unfaithful Wife
Historically, women have been punished harshly for being unfaithful. Literature has set an example with stern consequences for this transgression. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina are the most common cases of study. In both instances, their punishment was death.
But there were other, more subtle, penalties for women who betrayed their marital vows in fiction. In Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil (1925), Kitty marries Doctor Walter Fane out of convenience. Walter is devoted to Kitty, but she is bored with him and has an affair with the charming Charles Townsend. When Walter finds out about the affair, he takes his wife to a cholera-infested village in China to punish her. With illness and death around her, Kitty goes through a transformation and realizes how altruistic her husband is. But she never falls in love with him. Walter dies and Kitty returns to Hong Kong, where once again she falls under Townsend’s charms. This encounter disgusts her (she had been welcomed by Townsend’s wife into their home). Kitty returns to England and devotes her life to her son and father. But she never knows real love and has lost her dignity and self-respect.
In the 2006 film version, starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, the director gives Kitty a second chance. During her time in the Chinese village, Kitty not only matures and helps the sick, but she also falls in love with Walter, who eventually forgives her. (He never does in the original novel.) Kitty and Walter have a few days of bliss and love, but like in the book, Walter succumbs to the disease. A redeemed Kitty returns to London where, years later, she runs into Townsend. She is courteous but indifferent, and when her son asks who that man is, she answers “no one important.” In this version, Kitty also loses Walter, but she gained his love, his forgiveness and her dignity.
|In The Painted Veil, Dr. Walter Fane has no pity for his unfaithful wife.|
In Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961), both spouses are unfaithful. But infidelity is not the central issue in this novel. The biggest problem for the couple is that April wants an abortion and Frank doesn’t. In the end, April dies after getting an abortion “home kit” and doing it herself. The reader is left to wonder if Yates was making a comment about illegal abortion or April’s death was a punishment for her actions.
More recent unfaithful wives in fiction are Connie in Unfaithful (2002) and Sheila in Elin Hilderbrand’s A Summer Affair (2008).
In the film Unfaithful, Connie (Diane Lane) has lost her passion for her husband and engages in an affair with a French bookseller she finds irresistible. When her husband, Edward (Richard Gere) discovers the betrayal, he accidentally kills Connie’s lover. In this case, it is not the wife who pays, but the husband and the lover because in the end, it is apparent that Edward is going to turn himself in to the police.
In A Summer Affair, another wife with an illicit relationship (Sheila) gets a pass. Not only is the lover portrayed in a favorable light (he is a generous millionaire who appreciates Sheila’s artistic talent more than her husband) but also, Sheila’s husband never finds out about the affair. Sheila regrets her indiscretion and goes back to her normal life.
These two modern versions of the contemporary cheating wife are diametrically opposite to the past anti-heroines who paid dearly for their betrayals.
Nowadays, the subject of cousin marriage has become controversial in the United States (and this aversion seems to be expanding to other countries as well). But for centuries, inbreeding was a common practice in society (and in some cultures, it still is).
In the 80’s Colombian soap opera, Gallito Ramirez, the protagonist is a low-class boxer who falls in love with his spoiled and rich first cousin, La Niña Mencha, not knowing that they’re family. When the truth of Ramirez’s origins comes to light, the biggest obstacle for their marriage is still their social status, not their blood ties. If this story had been written by a contemporary American writer, would the couple have split at the end? In Colombia, the fact that they were cousins was not an obstacle for them to stay together.
Colombians have never been afraid of controversies. In 1988, they released Caballo Viejo (literally “Old Horse,” but the title comes from a popular Venezuelan song). The story explores not one, but two taboos. The protagonist, Epifanio del Cristo Martínez, is an old (and not very attractive) man who falls in love with Nora Márquez, a young, beautiful woman who happens to be his niece. The twist is that Nora, despite having the attention of better looking and younger men, also falls in love with her uncle.
With humor and a touch of magic realism, their relationship flourishes, but like most May-December romances in the last 30+ years, their love is doomed and one of the characters (usually the older one) perishes.
|Uncle and niece fall in love in the Colombian telenovela, Caballo Viejo (1988)|
What a contrast with the fiction of earlier centuries or even the first half of the twentieth century where romances between younger women and older men were ideal. Just take a look at Little Women (1868), Daddy Long Legs (1912) or Pygmalion (1913).
Priests and nuns in love
Another taboo is that of Catholic priests who fall in love. Perhaps the most iconic case is Father Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds (1977). Not only was Ralph and Meggie’s love doomed from the start, but also Meggie ‘paid’ for her forbidden love by losing those she loved the most: her two most beloved brothers, her father, and worst yet, the son Ralph fathered. As if things couldn’t get any worse, the love of her life, Ralph, also dies.
But Colleen McCullough was kind to her priest in love. She built a very human and conflicted character. He loved Meggie and was kind and (somewhat) generous, but he was also ambitious and loved the power the cassock gave him.
A more negative (and more recent) portrayal of a priest in love was rendered in the 2002 Mexican film El Crimen del Padre Amaro, a film so controversial they almost banned it in Mexico. The young priest Amaro is initially a positive character who only wants to do the right thing in his new parish. He meets the beautiful Amelia, a catechism teacher who confesses she’s having fantasies about him. Amaro cannot fight the temptation and gives in to his desires, resulting in Amelia’s pregnancy and subsequent abortion. In the end, it is Amelia who pays for Amaro’s mistakes with death. Amaro becomes as corrupt as the rest of the clergy in town.
Whereas priests in love never have happy endings in fiction, nuns are a different story.
Sister Maria in The Sound of Music (1965) is not only encouraged by the Mother Superior to leave the order and marry Captain von Trapp, but the nuns even attend her wedding ceremony.
The same happens in the Mexican production Mundo de Juguete (1974-1977) where the nun Rosario falls in love with the father of one of her students and marries him.
Why do you think this double-standard exists in fiction?
From all these examples we can conclude two things:
- The consequences of a behavior considered immoral or reprehensible vary from one culture/country/era to another.
- The perception of what constitutes a forbidden relationship also depends on the variables mentioned above.
Here comes the big question for writers (especially of historical fiction): Do we honor the cultural and social reality of the times we’re portraying or do we become anachronistic in order to appeal to a modern audience? Do you think it’s possible for an author to remain impartial about a moral issue? Can you think of novels or films you couldn’t relate to because of your incongruent views?
*This article contains spoilers for the following novels/films: The Age of Innocence, The Painted Veil, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Revolutionary Road, Unfaithful, A Secret Affair, The Thorn Birds, El Crimen del Padre Amaro, The Sound of Music and the telenovelas: Mundo de Juguete, Gallito Ramirez and Caballo Viejo.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like: Age and blood-ties: Do readers impose their taboos on the industry?, In Love with the Past and Understanding Theme.