On Weddings in Novels

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An essay of mine has just been published in a volume on the philosophy and theology of the soul, edited by Eric Austin Lee and Samuel Kimbriel. It’s the first time that I have contributed an essay in an actual, printed book, and so I am perhaps slightly inordinately proud of it.

My essay is on the portrayal of the soul in the novel. I argue that the novel  developed as a literary form particularly suited to the modern view of the subject as an isolated res cogitans separate from the res extensa and also from other res cogitantes, except to the extent that it enters into voluntary relationships with other subjects

Following Ian Watt, I argue that this explains not only the form of the novel, but also to a large extent the main theme of English novels since Samuel Richardson: love between a man and a woman usually terminating in marriage. As I put it in my essay,

Capitalism having destroyed the interpersonal ties of more organic societies and replaced them with cold contractualism, freely chosen relationships took on a great importance: especially the relationship of husband and wife, which, disengaged from other areas of life, becomes a matter of personal choice. (p. 204)

Now it occured to me recently that since marriage here is important mostly for its subjective purpose of overcoming the isolation of the individual, rather than for its role in a larger society, it makes sense that while proposals of marriage play a prominent role in novels, actual weddings are surprisingly rare. Moreover, on the rare occasions when a wedding is actually described, it is often described as being a small, private affair, rather than a great feast for a whole community.

Take for example David Copperfield’s wedding to Agnes. If anyone might be expected to ignore the novelistic convention of small weddings, one would think it would be Dickens, who has so much concern with “social” problems and so on, and is by no means so devoted to the classical novelistic purpose of giving a window into the depths of the res cogitans as more formally perfect novelists. Moreover, David Copperfield is by the time of his wedding to Agnes a national celebrity, who might be expected to have a very wide social circle. (Even in our lamentable time celebrities like to have big weddings; witness Francesco Totti’s wedding at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, which was televised so that the whole of Italy could be, as it were, present). And yet this is how Dickens describes David and Agnes’s wedding:

Traddles and Sophy, and Doctor and Mrs. Strong, were the only guests at our quiet wedding.

A notable exception to the rule, however, is (spoiler alert:Mary and Frank’s wedding in Trollope’s Dr ThorneIt is a truly magnificent affair in which not only all the friends and relations of the Thornes and Greshams are present, but also all the dignitaries of Barsetshire, and (significantly) all the common people dependent on the Greshams.

The reason for this, it seems to me, is that Dr Thorne is really about the conjunction of two different worlds, and of two different views of marriage. The Greshams are an old aristocratic family whose position in the community is threatened by new economic realities of 19th century England. The only practicable way for Frank to save his position, and thus the whole way of life of his family, and to a certain extent of the whole community, is to marry someone rich. But of course he falls in love with Mary Thorne, who is very poor. The interesting thing about the novel is the way in which both Frank and Mary are torn about their prospective marriage— both acknowledge the importance of personal choice and love (so central to the bourgeois ideal of marriage that is the main theme of novels), and yet both also see the importance of saving Frank’s position, and the suffering that their marriage would consequently bring on the whole community. There are two apparently incommensurable moral ideals in conflict here. This conflict is only resolved by the fortuitous circumstance of Mary’s inheriting the fortune of a railway magnate. Thus bringing a strange synthesis in which the wealth of the new world of railways and industry is used to prop up the old world way of life of the landed gentry. This works quite well in the novel, but it was not a solution that admitted to a general application to the problems of English society.

3 thoughts on “On Weddings in Novels

  1. Dearest Father,
    What wonderful reflections! And my husband Tony and I are delighted to see Trollope included favorably in your considerations!

    I’d like to add that in my recent novel (and yes, the joy of having one’s work published in a real printed book!), The Paradise Project, there is a wedding portrayed and it is a great community celebration, as well as a beautiful sacrament…Since my story is a romantic comedy, this wedding (of the heroine’s best friend; the heroine is here the maid of honor) –or rather the reception — is sadly (funnily) the occasion of one more mis-adventure for our heroine…but on the way to her own happy ending (which must, as you say, culminate in another wedding)…

    We always enjoy your posts, but this one was particularly timely for me, working as I am now on the sequel to The Paradise Project and thinking, again, about weddings…Thanks for your thoughtful work, and God bless you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Subjectification and Objectification | Sancrucensis

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