James Joyce’s Reservations About Marriage Are Still Relevant

“He had a notion that he was being had.  He could imagine his friends talking of the affair and laughing.  She was a little vulgar; sometimes she said I seen and If I had’ve known.  But what would grammar matter if he really loved her?  He could not make up his mind whether to like her or despise her for what she had done.  Of course, he had done it too.  His instinct urged him to remain free, not to marry.  Once you are married you are done for, it said.”

-The Boarding House, James Joyce (1914)

“I wish girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place for the crowd to stare at.’

Monica gazed at her with wide eyes.

‘You mean, I suppose, that people would try to reform things.’

‘Who knows? Perhaps they might only congratulate each other that a few of the superfluous females had been struck off.

– The Odd Women, Gissing (1893)

A recent interest in the writing of Joyce has forced me into a micro-feminist outrage which was easily nullified, worry not. At this point I really can’t stand the word “feminism.” It’s been branded and disjointed and, to be honest, I’d venture to say the majority of people don’t even know what the word means. But that’s all been said, and this isn’t a story about feminism anyway, so again, worry not. In fact this isn’t a story at all; it’s more of a question, or a moment to open up a dialogue. But back to Joyce.

It isn’t a secret that James Joyce, Irish novelist and short story writer, (one of the most influential and important authors of the 20th century) was not-pro marriage. In his collection of short stories, Dubliners, the female characters are often young and naïve, or highly overbearing mothers’ and wives, abused in the past, and/or, desperate to marry off their daughters and themselves.

He doesn’t portray marriage in a way that makes it seem all that enticing, nor does he make women out to be any more than naïve, desperate, and, uneducated. Of course, this was a thing back in “those days.” The institution of marriage was highly enforced, and women weren’t worth much if they weren’t backed by a man. Cringing? Me too.

The irony is in Joyce’s portrayal of men – terrified to be “tied down,” afraid to find themselves feeling “had” etc. So how can this work? Women require a husband in order to function in society, yet men are afraid of giving up their freedom. What do we do with the “institution of marriage?”

Joyce was a grave writer. He incorporated these cynical principals into his work to show the people of Ireland their follies. Joyce wanted to show a real picture of the people – so they would read and think differently, and hopefully, change their ways of living. Did it work? Unclear – but if it did, it surely did not spread over to the States. Because these ideas still exist in one form or another, stereotype or not.

Women are still looking to marry young, and to the person of their dreams, while men take their time and enjoy the freedom of “not being tied down” as long as they can. Of course these statements are wavering and general, but I’d like to venture that there is a flicker of truth. I’m not ranting about dating or marriage, or any of those things; nope, definitely not. But I am trying to figure out how certain ways of thinking have become so entirely progressive, while other have not.

So my query is the following: How is it that in a modern and fast paced era, where so many things are out in the open and widely accepted, the paradigm of the “institution of marriage” has almost remained stagnant? And instead of looking to properly fix it – people are avoiding it by skipping marriage all together, or waiting until much later, or creating open marriages, and so on.

In a moment like this, one must look to none other than James Joyce for wisdom. This man took the problems of the Irish and used his writing to showcase them, as do many writers in their time. This is how people acquire information – through acknowledgment and voice. The important thing is, things like this aren’t a secret, and putting them out in the open is the beginning to changing them. Although the present is highly reflective of the past, I truly believe that history doesn’t always need to repeat itself.

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