Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

The Marriage is a play about a social construct that Witold Gombrowicz calls the Formal Imperative. Forms may start as embryos or dreams, as in the case of Henry’s dream, but they insinuate themselves into life and gradually take on an existence of their own. Human beings use forms to dominate others while in turn being subjugated by forms imposed by others. Gombrowicz implies that forms may evolve imperceptibly and insidiously. Something is said, Henry adapts himself, and one word creates another. Since forms invalidate reality, Henry is forever imprisoned by doubts about the existence of reality, and the stage metaphor of a dream existence brings out this deformation, for in a realm of dreams there is no absolute even though the dreamer, dreaming, still lives in the real world.

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In Henry’s recognition of his father in the first act, he submits to the forms imposed by the father/son relationship. As a consequence of this submission, Henry also assumes the form of appropriate respect for his former betrothed, Molly, even though she is now a sluttish maid at the shabby inn his father owns. When the Drunkard challenges Molly’s purity as well as the dignity of his father, Henry responds by kneeling before his father. One form creates the next one, and Henry’s father is by this act elevated to the dignity of king. As king, he has the formal authority to declare Henry’s respectable marriage to Molly.

In the second act, the question of how forms generate new forms is further explored when Henry goes through the form of touching his untouchable father/king and finds himself a traitor. Something that began as a mere symbol is transformed into a reality: Henry really does seize power. As Gombrowicz suggests, however, since the individual is also subject to forms created between others, Henry’s will is inadequate when faced with doubts voiced by the Drunkard about Molly’s relationship to Johnny. This doubt in turn necessitates Henry’s formal act of will imposed upon Johnny, who is to commit suicide because Henry wills it. However, this act of will is subject to the constraints of the external world, and Henry finds himself once again a prisoner of form.

While some insist that The Marriage presents Gombrowicz’s criticism of the social constraints and vapid social forms of interwar Poland, others suggest that the play represents Gombrowicz’s analysis of the rise to power of a tyrant such as Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. Historical interpretations aside, The Marriage is a play about Henry’s imprisonment by and through form; it enacts a confrontation between form and humankind’s freely exercised ability to give particular significance to events. As the action progresses, Henry deliberately tries to destroy form in order to gain control over it. However, no sooner does he discard one form than he assumes another. In the process, as Henry comes to recognize, he has been turned into something he is not. The inability to become a real self thus emerges as the real tragedy of Henry’s submission to the Formal Imperative.

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Characters