Illusion versus Reality: Marriage in Modern Literature
Modern literature is known for questioning society and its various conventions. One question that these works often ask is, “What is real?” Some modern authors explore this question by placing their characters within self-constructed illusions that are later shattered by the introduction of reality. Marriages are frequently at the center of this theme, with one spouse crafting an illusory impression of the other. Modern literature demonstrates that a marriage built upon illusion will falter when exposed to reality.
In order to understand the effects of illusion on marriages in modern literature, we will explore two pieces: The Dead by James Joyce and Odour of Chrysanthemums by D.H. Lawrence. Both stories have central characters who have created, and lived with, a false picture of their spouse and their marriage. Firstly, I will discuss Elizabeth Bates’ negative, villainizing view of her husband in Odour of Chrysanthemums. Secondly, I will provide a contrast to that negative illusion with Joyce’s character Gabriel Conroy, who has painted a positive, idealized picture of his wife and their affection for one another.
Elizabeth Bates is an unhappy woman, particularly with regards to her husband’s drinking habits. She bitterly thinks to herself, “…he had probably gone past his home, slunk past his own door, to drink before he came in, while his dinner spoiled and wasted in waiting” (Lawrence 2247). While her husband has been brought home drunk before (2249), she has no evidence of that being the case on this particular day. This assumption is at the heart of Elizabeth’s illusion. Instead of being worried for her husband’s safety, she chooses to believe that he has no regard for his wife waiting at home. However, Elizabeth has not always been so resentful of her husband and their marriage.
Lawrence intimates that Elizabeth was once happy with her husband, particularly through the representation of chrysanthemums. When Elizabeth comes upon a patch of pink chrysanthemums, she becomes “suddenly pitiful” and picks the flowers, holds them to her face, and tucks them into her apron (2246). Later, we learn that her husband gave Elizabeth chrysanthemums on special occasions (2249). Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s bitterness toward her husband taints the joy she associated with the flowers. She later calls the flowers “nonsense,” removes them from her apron, and turns away—just as she has turned away from her husband.
While Elizabeth’s illusion has eroded most of the positive feelings she held for her husband, there is some spark of that former affection still left. When she believes her husband will be coming home ill, her thoughts briefly turn to a hopeful imagining: “[P]erhaps she’d be able to get him away from the drink and his hateful ways…The tears offered to come to her eyes at the picture…” (2253). Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s illusion of her husband as nothing more than a selfish drunkard clouds her...