Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Commitments Sublime and Ridiculous

I often finish a classic novel in possession of an idea of a theme. I know the book is “about” its characters, its plot, and even its message. But I usually latch on to a situation or abstract concept that comes up over and over. Thinking in this way, I characterize David Copperfield as a novel about marriage: good marriage, bad marriage, fake marriage, substitute marriage, wished-for marriage, first and second marriage, determination to avoid marriage, and so on. Similarly, Pride and Prejudice is about . . . okay, too obvious.

When recognizing these motifs, I congratulate myself for having noticed something significant. But I wonder sometimes if I haven’t just obsessed on one of the many threads that are bound almost by accident to run through any rich book. I feel pretty safe in seeing pride and prejudice as central to Elizabeth Bennet’s tale. But marriage in DC? What novel did Dickens not fill with marriages?

So I won’t claim to make a definitive statement on The Theme of Trollope’s The Small House at Allington, but I definitely ended the book thinking that every character and subplot involved some variation on a lifetime commitment: commitment in marriage, commitment to a religious life, commitment to the conventions of a social class, or financial commitment to dependents. Some characters first appear on the pages having already made a commitment. Some, like the Earl and Countess de Courcy, regret the commitment they’ve made (marriage in this case). Some, like the Lupexes with regard to their boarding house, act as though no one should ever change his mind on any decision whatsoever, even when so many of their fellow residents wish they would move on.

The strangest lifetime commitment in the novel is made by Lily Dale, the heroine Trollope’s narrator says we must love. Lily falls in love with Adolphus and consents when he proposes marriage. Just one week later, he asks a second girl to marry him, before even breaking his engagement with Lily. When he marries the second girl, all of Lily’s family and friends tell her about the ocean and other fish. But Lily says her love is a lifetime commitment and that love never changes, even when the beloved turns out to be a heel and asks another girl to marry him. She claims that in her heart she has married him. (No one points out that her stance makes a bigamist out of Adolphus.) As the novel ends, months later, Lily remains determined. Of course, everyone who’s ever been jilted feels this way at first. I myself once felt that I would never, ever love anyone else ever, ever again for almost four weeks.  But Trollope seems to leave us with the idea that Lily really means it. I suppose that in the nineteenth century, such romantic martyrdom might look slightly less ludicrous than it does to us. But even still, no other character approves of Lily’s decision, and I don’t think her author does, either.

By contrast, Amelia Roper, when also discovering that her first love will never marry her, decides to move on. She says near the end that she still loves the first fellow, but finds a satisfactory second love and decides she’d rather be happy than right. Now, the silly Amelia provides much of the comic relief in the story, and the narrator never tells the reader that he has an obligation to love her, as he does with Lily. And yet doesn’t she provide the model of sensible behavior? I don’t know that I love Amelia Roper, but I know I respect her more than I do Lily.

I realize I’ve given away a lot of the ending of the book here, but I guess I’ll make it my commitment to finish the job and tell you that Johnny Eames asks Lily Dale to marry him twice after she has made her commitment to Adolphus – once while she only anticipates an offer from Adolphus and once after he’s married and out of her reach forever – and that both times, she rejects Johnny Eames. As a result, Johnny Eames decides that the commitment of his heart to Lily Dale from the time he was nine years old has made his life a joke. He, too, decides he will never love again, even though friends tell him to keep asking Lily until her stony stubbornness wears down under his constant dripping. But very near the end of the novel, we’re told simply that Johnny Eames makes a determination finally to become a man. Now, I think Trollope wants us to interpret that message to mean that Johnny has indeed decided to continue asking Lily until she consents, the readers having to imagine for themselves the happy ending they’ve looked for from chapter 1. But I think Johnny Eames deserves better than Lily, so I’m making my own commitment to the theory that what Johnny Eames decides is that a nine-year-old love doesn’t commit anyone for a lifetime, and that it is no betrayal of anyone or anything to realize it’s time to move on.

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