The Personalist Project

Accessed on October 01, 2023 - 1:10:48

The master/slave dynamic in marriage, discretely illustrated

Katie van Schaijik, Jul 28, 2015

I'm reading a book of Alice Munro stories: Hatesphip, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. It's my first encounter with her writing, which I'd heard of only recently, in a podcast with Jay Nordlinger and Norman Podhoretz. Both named her as one of the greatest fiction writers of our time. "Every word is perfect." So I bought this book. And they were right. I am marveling over how much complex emotional reality she manages to convey in only a few lines. 

Take this passage from a story titled "Post and Beam." Lorna and Brendan got married, when she was 18. He was a 30 year old professor. (So, double master/slave potential—in the sexual difference and the age difference.)

Nevertheless, she cried, and cried again when she got letters from home in the early days of her marriage. Brendan had caught her at it, and said, "You love your family don't you?"

She thought he sounded sympathetic. She said, "Yes."

He sighed. "I think you love them more than you love me."

She said that was not true, it was only that she felt sorry for her family sometimes. They had a hard time, her grandmother teaching Grade Four year after year thought her eyes were so bad that she could hardly see to write on the board, and Aunt Beatrice with too many nervous complaints to ever have a job, and her father—Lorna's father—working in the hardware store that wasn't even his own.

"A hard time?" said Brendan. "They've been in a concentration camp, have they?"

Then he said that people needed gumption in this world. And Lorna lay down on the marriage bed and gave way to one of those angry weeping fits that she was now ashamed to remember. Brendan came and consoled her, after a while, but still believed that she cried as women always did when they could not win the argument any other way.

It's a perfect illustration, isn't it, of the master/slave dynamic discretely at work? It puts on display the kind of emotional neglect and abuse that are so commonplace in marriage as to be unrecognized for what they are.

Brendan isn't physically or verbally violent. But he's plainly not open to his wife. He's controlling, contemptuous, and egotistical. He thinks of a fraught conversation as an argument to be won. His consoling her is full of condescension.

She is having to learn to hide away her heart from him, lest it be ill-used.

I haven't finished reading the story, so I don't know how it turns out. I don't know if suffering  leads to an epiphany on Brendan's part, or if Lorna's disillusionment will lead her to divorce him.

Either way (or some other way), this passage stands on its own as a perfect illustration of unlove. I'm sure Brendan would be shocked and offended to hear it, but it's true.