Coward's Treatment of Gender-Roles and Marriage

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1406

As Noel Coward repeatedly insisted, Private Lives is a light comedy, intended to amuse and captivate its audience, rather than to teach moral lessons or advance a particular ideology. It is exactly the sort of popular work scholars may “murder to dissect:" to over-analyze its "deeper meanings" is to risk blinding ourselves to its glittering surfaces or sacrificing the light-hearted pleasures its author has carefully provided. Nonetheless, the lasting popularity of Private Lives indicates that it does have "something to say'' beneath its eccentric, entertaining banter, something that has appealed to audiences for several generations now. Its many intriguing qualities include Coward's cynical perspective on the eternal “battle of the sexes'' and an exploration of traditional gender-roles that can be seen to anticipate the social and sexual transformations of more recent years.

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In this reading, Victor and Sibyl are cartoonish representatives of the traditional male and female roles: he is stolid and conservative, paternally wishing to "look after" his new wife; she is emotional and sentimental, fully expecting to be taken care of by her husband. Coward intentionally sketches these characters as dull and two-dimensional, thoroughly predictable in their blind embrace of society's expectations. In contrast, Elyot and Amanda ate alluring rebels, who mock convention and follow their individual desires, despite the social disapproval they invite.

In historical terms, Coward can be said to dramatize the opposition between Victorian moral codes and such "modernist" doctrines as "free love," "companionate marriage," guilt-free divorce and female equality. These were among the catch-phrases of a widespread moral controversy at the time Private Lives was written; in different words, similar concerns have appeared in more recent debates over feminism, sexuality, and “family values'' (a debate that reached a high point with former vice president Dan Quayle criticizing the sitcom Murphy Brown for a plotline that involved the title character becoming a single mother). Amanda and Elyot clearly represent the "progressive'' moral position, in opposition to restrictive traditions. Yet in another sense they are firmly traditional; while they defy conventional notions of social respectability, they remain faithful to the dictates of another convention, that of romantic love. When Elyot and Amanda escape the legal bonds of their new marriages it is not to pursue a promiscuous lifestyle or to make a philosophical statement but to follow the stronger love between themselves: they are romantics following their own hearts regardless of the consequences, not revolutionaries who seek to overthrow all conventions.

Victor and Sibyl embrace the sterile, unequal terms of traditional marriage. Coward implies that, unlike their worldly and sophisticated partners, they lack the imagination to feel restricted by the artificial confines of their stereotypical gender-roles or the self-awareness to notice any conflict between their private desires and the public images they strive to maintain. It may be that they simply cannot conceive of any alternatives to the parts they have always expected to play. Amanda and Elyot, on the other hand, are too intelligent and self-aware to be satisfied for long in the confinement of a conventional marriage—even though they were both willing to enter into such an alliance before their youthful passion was rekindled. Their impulsive decision is a courageous (if selfish) search for a more fulfilling alternative, which allows them more equal roles. The traditional marriage represented by Victor and Sibyl is an unbalanced equation: either the man has full authority over his submissive wife or she "runs" him surreptitiously, bending him to her...

(The entire section contains 2816 words.)

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Private Lives