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Portrait of a Marriage in 20th Century Literature: Joyce, O'Brien, and Rhys

Throughout centuries, people expressed different viewpoints towards marriage, some favoring it more than others. However, it is undeniable that marital relationships are not solely based on love and courtship.

Under the surface, one can find hardships and issues of mistrust, compromise, and various obstacles that married couples must overcome to preserve their relationships. Nonetheless, society tends to romanticize the concept of marriage without confronting its challenges.

Therefore, several literary works tackled the issue of marriage while examining society’s contribution and its downfalls or triumphs. Three of the most known literary works that delve deeper into marital relationships and the hardships that they carry are James Joyce’s The Dead, Edna O’Brien’s Lantern Slides, and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Each one of these novels presents a different viewpoint on marriage while portraying the impact of society.

Marriage and society

To begin with, James Joyce’s The Dead is one of the short stories in his collection known by the Dubliners. The story is set in Dublin, Ireland, in the early 20th century, and was happening at an annual party organized by the protagonist’s aunts Kate and Julia Morkan and their niece, Mary Jane Morkan. In addition to depicting Irish culture and traditions, the story focuses on the relationship between the protagonist Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta. Throughout this short story, the author integrates his thoughts and criticism about the skewed romanticization of marriage. He depicts it as a relationship that carries both change and compromise.

Green (2018) expresses that it demands the acceptance of death and change, rather than just presenting it as superficial as society does. Therefore, Green argues that Joyce tends to link marriage to death. In addition, this relationship is emphasized through the reference to the song that Gabriel’s aunt Julia recites at the dinner party. By the end of the novel, Gabriel predicts his aunt’s death by referring to this song: “Poor Aunt Julia! She too would soon be a shade…he had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal” (Joyce 222). According to Green, by referring to this scene at the dinner party, Joyce creates a clear link between death and marriage.

Retrieved from the 1987 movie adaptation of The Dead

Furthermore, this connection can be seen in the marriage of Gabriel and Gretta, which eventually takes a radical turn, right after he learns about her previous relationship with Michael Furey. This shattered the image that Gabriel had about his wife.

The song that Mr. D’Arcy has recited at the dinner party entitled “The Lass of Aughrim” has awakened feelings of nostalgia and sorrow in Gretta, which drove her further away from her husband: “She broke loose from him and ran to the bed and, throwing her arms across the bed-rail, hid her face” (Joyce, 2001, p.218). Realizing he is not the influential male figure in Gretta’s life, the image Gabriel created of his wife dies. This made him realize that he no longer has control over her emotions, nor can he master her, for another man has previously sacrificed his life in return for her love: “a vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer as if… some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world” (Joyce, 2001, p.220).

Therefore, one can conclude that the events of the dinner party contributed to evoking unrevealed emotions in Gretta and Gabriel as well: “He watched her while she slept as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife” (Joyce, 2001, p.222).

Gabriel’s wish to control his wife’s emotions reveals his misogynistic behavior and patriarchal dominance that Burke describes in her article. “By stressing Gabriel’s obliviousness to the women’s labor on the one day on which they should be relaxing, Joyce underlines how little his protagonist knows of their traditions and inner lives” (Burke 2017).

Another story that highlights society’s depiction of marriage is Edna O’Brien’s Lantern Slides. The characters experience loss and “tragedies that are the result of an ordinary passion, stupidity or stubbornness” (Leavitt 1990). The novel introduces different presentations of marriage and love relationships. The stories connecting the guests at Betty’s birthday party generally begin with love and end with an unfortunate event such as abandonment, love affairs, or miscarriage. Moreover, it focuses on the characters gossiping and their interpretations of the marital relationships surrounding them:

“Mr. Conroy whispered to Miss Lawless that Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan had not spoken for over a year, but that nevertheless, Mrs. Vaughan insisted on escorting him everywhere” (O’Brien, 1993, p.184) “…he was pleased to tell Miss Lawless in confidence one or two things about Betty’s rival, a Danish woman called Clara” (O’Brien, 1993, p.186).

Furthermore, the story stresses out the characters’ dissatisfaction with their relationships: “‘She makes him feel good’, Dr. Fitz said …he seemed to express a desire for such a woman and not the needful, tempestuous Sinead” (O’Brien, 1993, p.186).

It is therefore clear that O’Brien’s short story points out how society and people judge marriage, which may have a negative influence on the involved parties.

The title page of a book Edna O’Brien Lantern Slides, published by picador.

Marriage and insecurity

Finally, a third novel that focuses on the downfall of marriage is Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Throughout the story, Rhys shows how a dysfunctional marriage based on materialism drives women into mde Sargasso Sea depicts the marriage of Antoinette Cosway and Mr. Rochester. Rochester’s love for money and colonialism led him into marrying Antoinette, who inherited her father’s lands in Jamaica. However, Rochester’s English superiority and inability to fit in with the Creole drove him further away from his wife. What is more, he grows a feeling of hatred towards Antoinette, which leads him to push her away from her homeland and impose himself as a master of her life, making her mad and inferior.

Although he initially desired her, he no longer feels this lustfulness, nor he wishes to invest some time and effort in their relationship. The social setting and the nature of Jamaica alienated them further away from each other, especially since Rochester was not able to accept Antoinette as Creole.

“I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers, and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever color, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it” (Rhys, 1999, p.172).

Rochester associates Antoinette with her Creole identity and refuses to accept her as an English woman but perceives her as a subordinate and someone not worthy enough.

Retrieved from a film adaptation of Wide Sargasso Sea 2006

Their marriage is not based on love but rather on sheer materialism and desire for power. Instead of accepting, they drain the power out of each other, not just because of materialism and power. Rochester’s hatred toward Antoinette is greatly influencing their marriage and the whole story.

“She’ll have no lover, for I don't want her and she'll see no other” (Rhys, 1999, p.166).

During this conversation, Christophine begs Rochester to leave Antoinette in Jamaica, so that she can stay where she belongs and to heal from her broken marriage. However, Rochester claims possession over Antoinette’s life since he believes that it is his duty and responsibility, as her husband, to take care of her.

Additionally, this came out as more than just a hunger for power and control. People tend to crave power when they themselves have been deprived of it or because they are insecure. This can be toxic for a marriage.

One can conclude that in the novel, Rhys presents a marriage that is based on patriarchal dominance and materialism rather than love and sacrifice. Moreover, she highlights the importance of the social setting and society on one’s identity and how this influenced the marriage between Rochester and AntoinetteTo sum up, each one of these novels has succeeded in presenting the different aspects of marriage. In contrast to what society depicts, marriage is no bed of roses. It is full of disagreements and conflicts that people need to overcome to maintain a solid relationship.

The nature of marriage and the pillars on which these relationships are based differ from couple to couple. It is essential to take into consideration the impact that society has on one’s marriage and every individual.


Burke, M. (2017). Forgotten Remembrances: The 6 January" Women's Christmas"(Nollaig na mBan) and the 6 January 1839" Night of the Big Wind"(Oíche na Gaoithe Móire) in" The Dead". James Joyce Quarterly, 54(3), 241-274.Green, Natalia. "Romeo and Juliet, Marriage and Death: Joyce's Portrayal of Marriage as Death and Society's Fantasy." (2018).

Leavitt, D. (1990). Small Tragedies and Ordinary Passions. New York Times Book Review, 24.

Nelson, R., Davey, S., & Joyce, J. (2001). James Joyce's The Dead. New York: Samuel French.

Rhys, J., Raiskin, J. L., & Brontë, C. (1999). Wide Sargasso Sea: Backgrounds, criticism. New York, N.Y: W.W. Norton.


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Gaelle Abou Nasr

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