bro, where's my marriage plot
the marriage plot, etc.
First of all, preorder my novel The Late Americans. It comes out May 23 in the US and in June in the UK.
It rained on Monday, so I didn’t have my tennis lesson in the morning. I forgot to schedule office hours for the afternoon, so I had a morning to myself on a Monday that did not mean that I had to run to a train at 8am or pummel my thighs or stretch my arms before tennis. I had a real moment to think about my life. I looked out the window and against the fog and the low gray sky, there was steam issuing from the top of a building. Distantly and below, something clanging rhythmically. I thought, at first, Dickens vibes. Then, Wharton vibes. But then I was struck by one of my more random and chaotic thoughts: all those dudes in The House of Mirth were going around collecting Americana and, like, that was just the crypto of its day. This thought led to another random thought which was that some of those men were collecting Americana because they probably hoped it would appreciate in value—either socially or materially—enough to allow them to marry. Indeed, so much of that novel turns on the fact that there were not enough men with enough money to marry the women they wanted to marry in that particular social stratum of New York. And then it got me thinking about the role of dudes in the marriage plot.
Usually, when we talk about the marriage plot in popular culture, we talk about the women, particularly those belonging to bourgeoisie or petit-bourgeoisie, for whom—owing to the patriarchal structure of Western Christian Society—the route to material and economic security ran through marriage. But alongside the economic argument made in the marriage plot was also an argument about value and virtue. In the typical marriage plot, a woman of modest or meager means who cannot expect to marry into economic and material safety endures a series of harrowing social and mortal trials and in doing so is rewarded with true love—and also money. The marriage plot rose to prominence with the middle-class novel precisely because the marriage plot provided a useful aesthetic and moral spine for such novels. The middle classes saw themselves reflected in the sentimental bourgeois novel. They saw their mores and manners depicted, but more than that, they found their values upheld, and to court success, novelists in the genre leaned further into the tropes and moral system of the bourgeoisie, so much so that the marriage plot became inextricable from the class whose behaviors and attitudes served as its subject, theme, and mode.
At the time, it was quite radical that one might imagine someone rising up the social ladder by way of marriage. That a person might through dint of their character might be rewarded with a good husband with a lot of money and land. The middle class was desperate for a myth about itself, and the bourgeois sentimentality of the marriage plot provided a useful, self-propagating legend, a new religion fit for a new class. That it also allowed women to write about women and their material agency was not a small thing. And one can also probably and should probably imagine that there was some extent to which some of these female authors engaged the genre cynically so as to support themselves and to partake in some of the bourgeois comforts they found themselves representing in their novels.
Obviously, things are different now. Not as different as one would hope or like. Indeed, sometimes it feels as though we are heading backwards at an alarming clip. But, I think we can say that society is arranged a little differently these days. The marriage plot is no longer the centralizing idea of our literature. Though, I would argue that it kind of still is. Instead of will this virtuous young woman survive her series of trials and marry a rich guy who will make her life better of previous eras, the contemporary marriage plot is more a Beckettian exploration of ontologies: me am wife, he am man, what am wife, what am man, child hungry, capitalism big ouchie. Novels about wives and mothers in crisis and novels about young women trying to figure out if they want to become wives and mothers is still kind of a marriage plot because marriage looms like a harrowing specter in the distance, an omnipresent specter that waits to swallow our virtuous young women whole and spit them out on a pile of bones. I sometimes feel like we haven’t escaped the marriage plot so much as seen it shift its focus, and then I remember that the marriage plot was always kind of an analytic tool to understand power dynamics, and all that’s really changed is that now we’re focusing on what happens to a woman in a marriage.
But that is not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about dudes.
There is a kind of man who is preoccupied with stacking bands. These men are on Twitter. They are on TikTok. They are on Instagram. They are on YouTube. This man trades stocks for fun. This man goes to the gym and eats lean protein. This kind of man takes recreational testosterone so that he can maintain his edge. He is a lawyer. He is a trader. He is a fitness influencer. He has a Discord. He has a Slack. He has weaponized his Adderall prescription into productivity influencing. He gives other men advice. He preaches to multitudes. He gets online and he yells at women. He gets offline and he talks too loudly too closely to women at bars and at parties. He is on Tinder. He is on Hinge. He is everywhere.
I am interested in this kind of man because he does not know that he too is in a marriage plot. Hear me out. You know those guys who get on Twitter and make threads about women’s body counts? Or who have podcasts where they talk about women’s chastity like it’s Earth’s most precious and rapidly dwindling resource? Who are also always talking about getting a side hustle so they can provide. And about how men need to provide? And how if you show emotional vulnerability, you might as well bend over and grab your ankles and let the homies go to town on you? Those are the ones I mean. Those mean are absolutely in the throes of a marriage plot. Because they are seeking wealth for what? To buy a large house so that a woman will want to have sex with them and/or marry them. They are OBSESSED with women’s chastity why? Because they want to marry a woman who is, in their minds, “high-value” so that they can cart her around and pose her like a breathing symbol of their own value. They are obsessed with this weird-ass hunter-gatherer must provide for my lady mentality why exactly? Because they want to settle down in a house with their little wife and have their little kids and be content.
The average hustle-influencer has the same value system of the 18th and 19th century bourgeoisie. They are as conservative morally, as materially minded, and as vapid. This makes sense. The values stem from the same origin. An attempt to emulate the mana and nobility of the upper-classes from a by-gone era that hardens into a peevish conservatism. The bourgeoisie of the 19th century was copying the elite of the 18th century, the true elite, the aristocracy. The moral conservatism of these generation’s knuckleheads comes right out of the 50s. And the mode of expression of that conservatism is also the same: capitalism. One imagines that if one accumulates enough then they can buy their way into greater status. And it’s true, you can do that. But it is always a duller version of that greater status. What marks out a bourgeois parvenu is the desperation of the striving, the stridency in the insistence that one’s values be adhered to. There is nothing worse or meaner than a middle-class snob.
Something that makes me laugh a lot is when certain genres of heterosexual men get online and complain about how there are no good women. It makes me laugh because, like, that’s exactly what Mrs. Bennett felt about men in the opening of Pride and Prejudice. That’s why she flung her daughters at the first man of fortune who presented himself. Even the guys who make front-facing Instagram videos about how women don’t want a good man and how women are just deceptive, etc, etc, those men…are just. Okay, like, you know how in Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley is talking about accomplishments? Okay, so, when I watch videos like that, I imagine the men as Caroline Bingley. Because they do be listing their accomplishments. They have a lot of opinions about what makes a gentleman accomplished. Going to the gym, getting swole, getting rich, eating a certain way, looking a certain way, acting a certain way.
It might be said that all the toxic alpha men on Twitter and the cadre of people who support them are all in deep thrall to a marriage plot. That it is the central issue at the heart of so much toxic rhetoric in the culture today, particularly that rhetoric singling out trans and queer people. That the threatened and defensive posture assumed by so many white middle-class people in order to justify their anti-trans, anti-queer, anti-black rhetoric is in part justified by their adherence to some sort of underlying structure that starts to look a lot like the traditional marriage plot in which white men of means and white women of virtue join hand-in-hand and in the sacralizing vows of matrimony attain something like deliverance.
But to return to my original thought of the men in The House of Mirth. If you don’t know the novel, it’s about a young woman named Lily Bart who is on the lookout for a husband of means. Lily has received all the education and training one expects for a young woman of her class, but she doesn’t have the money to make her an enticing bride for the useless, penniless men of her station. She runs into one such man, Lawrence Selden, early in the novel and the two banter. There’s a spark, chemistry. But Selden is looking for a rich wife, not merely a genteel one, and Lily, though attracted to Selden, must also find a husband with resources. It’ll never work. What interests me about Selden however is that he’s collecting books. Americana.
The collecting of objects has long been a hobby of the genteel and the aristocratic alike. That’s not new. What is interesting to me about Selden’s habit is that he is neither genteel nor aristocratic. He is stylish and has manners. He has connections though no wealth. He is a part of the set. His collecting is a part of this, I believe. A behavior like polo or tennis, something signifying one’s class. But it also has the benefit of being an economic activity. Distinct from the coarser economic activity of stock trading or speculation, which is a hard, bright line in Wharton’s world. On the one hand are those with old money that grows gently, steadily, and on the other hand is new money made in the heat and blitz of new markets. Nothing good ever comes from speculation in Wharton’s world. That new money always has the sense of being sooty and distasteful though it spends just as well. It is the steady, genteel habit of collecting Americana that has all the prestige.
I was thinking about how if Selden had wanted to, he could have given over his collecting of Americana and invested in a stock scheme to get enough money to marry Lily. But that would have meant partaking in an unstylish, unfashionable game of accumulation. A gentleman is allowed to want money privately, but never to express a need for it publicly. Selden is unable to violate his aesthetic sense and his tentative foothold in the elite society to make a gamble for Lily and in doing so, dooms her.
In thinking about Selden’s collecting Americana, I thought about the rapper Drake and his dozens of Birkin bags. He bought them, he said, for his future wife. For her benefit. And then I thought of the celebs who traded fast and loose with their own images to make millions by endorsing crypto only for it to go belly up months later after people had invested all their savings. On the one hand, you had Drake engaging in a weird (and a little tacky, tbh!) but generally expected mode of accumulation and collection and on the other, you had the almost unbearably distasteful mode of famous famous American actors appearing in commercials for money, of all things. I think the distaste that many people felt at seeing famous people debase themselves for mere money is a similar hard bright line that Wharton draws in The House of Mirth (and other of her novels) between the genteel collecting of Americana and the heat of speculation.
Though I do believe there’s something to be said about antisemitism there in her portrayal of speculation, particularly in The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country.
I couldn’t get it out of my mind that Selden is as in the throes of a marriage plot as Lily. He has greater social agency in many ways being a man, but in other ways, he is as beholden by social scripts. You might say, he could marry, he’d just have to leave his social station. And that is true. For love, he could do that. But we also know what happens in marriage plots when people marry unworthy people even for love. In Austen, you end up like Fanny Price’s mother—birthing babies and living in abject poverty—or you end up like the bored, unhappy Mary Musgrove, or worse, her long-suffering husband Charles. Or you end up like Mr. Rochester and Bertha in Jane Eyre. Indeed, if Jane had married Rochester before the literal cleansing fire scraped away all of his moral lesions, you imagine that her fate would have been quite bad. And so, if Selden had married Lily as they both were, perhaps they might have been happy a little while, a very little while, but the moral system that governs the bourgeoisie would demand that they suffer in the long-run from economic and material hardship. And there is no greater hardship in a world governed by capitalism than economic or material hardship.
I remember being very young and watching my aunts lecture my younger girl cousins about not getting pregnant. Because if they had a baby as a teenager, their lives would be ruined. Not morally exactly, at least not at first. It was more that their lives would be ruined because they’d never earn as much money as they might have otherwise, and that this lack of money and earning capacity would eventually lead to moral decay, or it would increase the moral decay already present that had allowed them to get pregnant young in the first place. The boys were told to regard women as impediments to the accumulation of resources that should be bestowed upon the one true woman of our lives. It was all very curious. The mingling of morality and economics. We were dirt poor and lived on a farm. We were never going to have a lot of money anyway. But this was one of the first moral lessons we received. That having sex outside of marriage would forever wound us and destroy our futures. It was not souls that were at issue. It was our earning power, which in its way, was a manifestation of the degree of purity of our souls.
Even now when people gasp on social media about marriages in distress, it is not the soul they gasp loudest for. It’s the money. The perceived financial or economic hit. I admit that sometimes, not always, just sometimes, when I come across a post from Reddit’s AM I THE ASSHOLE forum on Twitter, I think first of the money, “Oh, that’s gonna be an expensive divorce.” Then I feel sad and think about how they probably feel bad about their husband being a monster and that they should divorce him.
Even I’m stuck in this latter-day marriage plot.