Love and Divorce: Through the Eras of American Literature

In A Modern Instance, Howells is concerned about the
sentimentalism in popular literature and in the press. Howells sought to treat
divorce as a serious literary subject. Howells is aware of this split in
American literature between mass sentimentalism and literary choice. Yet,
rather than abandon the social for the areas of romance, he calls for realism
in which nothing is “unworthy of notice.” Howells writes—in contrast to the
romantic writer—the realist, “feels in every nerve the equality of things and
the 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 the
truths of society that he sought to explore. In doing so, Howells flaws upon
the social history of divorce in America. He illustrates how divorce reflects
western expansion, urbanization, and technology as well as changing gender
roles and rising expectations of emotional fulfillment in love and marriage.
Furthermore, he demonstrates how the tension between individual desire and
social duty lies at the core of debates about divorce.

In Marry Me: A Romance, John Updike brings together many
concerns of the prior divorce novels. Using similar symbols, Updike creates a
narrative with three endings. This suggests an indirectness created by the
strain between the self and society, realism and romance, husband, wife, and
mistress. The narrative variability of the endings demonstrates how unbalanced
the structure of meaning has become in the late twentieth century. Because both
eventually get you to the same place, he leaves his central character with the
false choice of traveling west or east on one of the Virgin Islands. Updike
provides the reader with a tender metaphor for the dilemmas that divorce
symbolizes. Furthermore, Updike publishes this during the same year he files
for divorce himself. While Updike may not be fictionalizing his experiences
openly, there still seems to be noteworthy connections between his writing and
his life that propose that divorce offers him new ways of thinking about both
his life and his writing.

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In Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, we meet
another well-educated and affluent male who suffers immensely when faced with a
divorce. Ralph Marvell, like Howell’s Ben Halleck, is a marginal character. He
is of the elite aristocrats in New York. Much like Halleck, he is depicted as
fragile and ineffectual, as decomposing from the heaviness of the moral
conflict that divorce intensifies and shoves in his face. However, unlike
Halleck, Ralph actually experiences a divorce first hand, in which he is forced
into against his will by a dominant woman. He also holds a prominent importance
in society’s most desirable crowd, a social status that the crippled Halleck
never 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 “all
right” for Undine in the end (Wharton, Custom 376). With his passing, the
audience sees Undine’s rise, and Wharton creates a critique of both the old
manner, represented by Ralph, and the present manner, represented by Undine,
thematically studying their marriage and the difficulties surrounding a
probable union of the two. Throughout the novel, Wharton reviews the boundaries
accompanying divorce. However, she approaches the subject a bit differently
than Howells. With his aesthetic of the ordinary, Howells recognized the
autonomous potential of divorce on an aesthetic and social scale. Moreover, no
one in his novel benefits from it as they do here.

With Undine, Wharton shows us the mobility extended by
divorce and alludes to the democratic potential that Howells admired. Wharton
illustrates that divorce gives Undine the opportunity to remarry and start
over. Previously restricted to her, these marriages give her entry into arenas,
moreover, enabling her to move up the social ladder. However, with each
advancement, she evens the field and is compelled to continue to strive for
something better—previously unattainable—leaving behind a trail of refuse most
vividly represented here by Ralph. This is a family that is based on matrimony
in order to maintain an elite limited commonality that characteristically
separates them from others. Divorce functions as a restraint in his circle, not
a beneficial opportunity. It fosters a progressively shifting scene that
disrupts a prior way of life and eventually bringing ruin to Ralph.

Divorce has had a powerful influence on American culture
both factually and metaphorically. The highlights of symbolic aspects of the
history of divorce in American literature provide a useful foundation for
studying divorce in American culture. The literature spans the last century,
through which divorce has become a normality. Today, it is a common, everyday
occurrence. Therefore, it becomes what is considered the bane of the American
nation as well as popular material for lighthearted sitcoms and romantic
movies. Moreover, it has also pointed to such inconsistencies distinctive in
American ideology that make it a suitable focus for American literature. While
the subject of divorce is not as controversial today as it was during the era
in which Howells, Wharton, and Updike were writing, its primacy speaks to the
importance of understanding the early impact it had on society and on the theme
of love and romance in American literature. This is especially true considering
that the divisive issue today is not so much divorce as it is marriage and the
way in which we define it and one that still at its core revolves around
questions of morality and democracy. Given the significance of marriage in
society and subsequently the essential role it plays in the history of the
American novel, a close look at how authors have formally and thematically
addressed the subject over the years can foster valuable insight about its
changing nature and shape. Like these realists who shift our attention to a
past that they simultaneously challenged, it behooves us to follow suit and
consider the structural foundations on which our current understanding of the
issues rest—more than a century later.