Divorce in Literature Analysis

At Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Since divorce, the dissolution of marriage, is a legal process, it constitutes a socially sanctioned transformation of one kind of social unit into another. Divorce is significantly different from a dissolution of the family through the desertion or abandonment of one partner by the other, or of one or both partners of their children, because desertion is not sanctioned by society. On the contrary, abandonment is generally perceived as a socially unacceptable action, one which breaks with the culture’s established norms of order and moral value. Therefore, the legitimate return of married people to the legal status of a single individual is important because it means that society accepts that the rights and interests of the individual can be more important than those of the family or of social stability in general. Divorce has figured in North American literature, with some significant exceptions, as a powerful means of dramatizing a married woman’s struggle to attain an identity of her own. A man’s marital status has not, traditionally, been as important to his identity as it has been for a woman; hence the emphasis on the woman’s experience with divorce.

Literature to 1900

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, divorce was conspicuously absent from the literary work produced in North America. Such writers as James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving idealized marriage but never dealt with it directly in their fictions, and earlier writers tended to be conventional, moralistic, and provincial regarding public morality in general and the sanctity of the marriage bond in particular. Beginning with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), however, North American writers began to present strong female characters entangled in troubled, inadequate, or unsatisfactory marriages, and more than that, to suggest women could replace these failed relationships with a more satisfactory life as emancipated individuals, with or without a more suitable partner. Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne marks the first example in American literature of this kind of female character. Although she endures physical punishment and social rejection by a society that judges her adversely for having a child during her husband’s extended absence, and for refusing to identify the father, she is undaunted and self-reliant, urging her lover to elope with her to Europe, where they can live together outside the laws that govern them in America. Her lover, the highly respected young minister Arthur Dimmesdale, can neither bring himself to make public admission of what he has done nor escape with her to Europe and make a new start. Instead he punishes himself for years in private before making a humiliating public admission of his sin and finally dying in Hester’s arms, a broken man. After Dimmesdale’s death, Hester goes to Europe with her daughter and enjoys the fruits of her strong-minded individuality in peace, free from the social stigma that was her lot in New England. Since social norms in the mid-nineteenth century strictly forbade divorce on any grounds...

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Literature from 1900 to 1950

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The fictional landscape of divorce and the question of the compatibility of individual female identity and marriage are brilliantly explored by Edith Wharton in The Custom of the Country (1913). The custom referred to in the title is divorce, the country is the United States, and the novel recounts the rise of Undine Spragg, through a series of marriages and divorces, to social prominence in New York and later Parisian society. Along the way she acquires a son, has an affair, converts to Catholicism, marries a French count, and finally marries Elmer Moffatt, a self-made railroad tycoon who had been her first husband years before when he was poor and unsuccessful. The power to obtain a divorce is linked to a positive personal benefit in terms of freedom, happiness, and self-realization. Divorce is depicted as the “wave of the future,” a vigorous practice of the young and economically booming Midwest which, in the person of Undine, invades and conquers the conservative bastions of the old aristocratic order. Undine’s career is paralleled throughout the novel by the steady rise of Elmer (whose identity as her first husband is hinted at early in the story, but not revealed until its final chapters), and their joint victory over old-fashioned ideas and customs is symbolized by their marriage and by the fact that they finally take up residence in a mansion, in a new section of Paris, furnished in part with heirloom tapestries surreptitiously purchased from...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Literature Since 1950

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Divorce became much more prevalent in North American society during the second half of the twentieth century, especially from the 1960’s on, and its appearance in fiction increased correspondingly. The focus of interest shifted from the question of the effect of divorce on the identities of women to the effect of divorce on the identities of men. In the powerful climax of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960), for example, Rabbit Angstrom, unable to decide whether to divorce his wife and marry his pregnant girlfriend or desert the girlfriend and stay with his wife and child, abandons them all, literally running away from his past life. Divorce propels Saul Bellow’s protagonist in Henderson the Rain King (1959), a middle-aged Connecticut millionaire, to go to Africa in an attempt to quell an inner voice that continually cries “I want, I want.” After extraordinary adventures in a world “discontinuous with civilization” he achieves self-knowledge and, at peace with himself at last, returns to America. In Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (1964) the audience is forced to enter the mind and experience the memories of a middle-aged man as he relives two failed marriages in an effort to gain a better sense of his true personal identity. Not only do these works, for the first time, make the male experience of divorce a central theme in American fiction, but also they consistently deal with divorce’s adverse effect on the male identity. For female literary characters up to the late twentieth century, divorce facilitates, or is necessitated by, a growth in personal identity. For male characters in the fiction of the 1950’s and 1960’s, divorce marks a painful collapse of traditional forms of personal identity.

During that late twentieth century female characters also began to experience divorce in terms of a collapse of identity along with the collapse of a marriage. This was not really...

(The entire section is 787 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bell, Millicent. Meaning in Henry James. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. A literary interpretation of James’s most important novels, focusing on the subtleties of his development of character, including discussions of the construction of identity in The Portrait of a Lady and What Maisie Knew.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Hester Prynne. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. A collection of essays exploring a range of views of Hawthorne’s heroine, from dangerous violator of social norms to healthy individualist.

Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Garden City, N.J.: Anchor Press, 1957. An excellent introduction to the American novel.

Hook, Andrew. Dos Passos. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. A collection of essays that discuss the ways Dos Passos’ fiction documents the social, sexual, and economic changes of early twentieth century urban America.

Joslin, Katherine. Edith Wharton. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Compares Wharton to other women writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with emphasis on her unusual concern for the plight of the individual whose identity is too constrained by social ties and obligations.