Do Us Part

Six Fictional Marriages that Have Gone Very, Very Wrong

Jean Hanff Korelitz, the author of the new novel You Should Have Known, on her favorite books about failed marriages.

Obviously, I know everything there is to know about marriage. Who else but a self-appointed expert would commit the hubris of writing a novel like You Should Have Known, in which a marriage counselor has, to put it bluntly, no idea what’s going on in her own 18-year marriage, nor even, really, the first thing about her husband? And then there’s the fact that I’ve actually made it to my own Silver Anniversary and beyond (26 years and 7 months of marriage, not that I’m keeping track). Clearly I know what I’m talking about.

The truth? I don’t know squat. I have no special understanding of what makes a marriage work, or not work—what makes it last, or not last. For many years, nearly all of the marriages I observed around me struck me as more harmonious than my own, more solid than my own. When I visited the lovely homes of these happy couples I saw soul mates, whipping up sumptuous meals together in their kitchens and conversing across the dinner tables, about art and politics, in iambic pentameter. What did they know that I didn’t?

Now that most of those people are divorced, I no longer feel it’s polite to ask them.

All I know for sure is that you can never truly comprehend what goes on in another person’s relationship, at least in real life. Fiction, though—fiction is something else altogether. Marriages on the printed page exist in suspended time, for our eternal inspection; they expose themselves to us as readers, and as readers we can examine them and consider them and explain them to ourselves until we are satisfied that we truly understand. There are so many infamous fictional marriages that have instructed me. Have they contributed to the longevity of my own union with my beloved husband (of 26 years and seven months)? Um ... no. Have they informed my fiction, specifically when it comes to marriage? Most assuredly. Here are six fictional marriages that have gone very, very wrong.

The Good Soldier

By Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford’s landmark 1915 novel considers two married couples who are so harmoniously attuned to one another that they rise from the dinner table in silent, un-cued synchronicity. Alas, the decidedly unreliable narrator knows far more about these four than he initially tells, and the truth comes out in a masterful unwinding of secrets and viciousness. One young woman, unfortunate enough to have wandered into this marital minefield, is nearly catatonic by the end of the novel, and can only utter a single word, the divinely appropriate: “Shuttlecocks!”

The Rising Tide

By Molly Keane

The greatest of Irish novelist Molly Keane’s early pseudonymous novels (which appeared under the nom de plume M.J. Farrell), The Rising Tide (1934) takes place on an Anglo-Irish estate and features more than one of her signature monsters: characters (usually women) so horrific that your skin crawls as you watch them in action. But special attention must be paid to the character of Lady Charlotte French-McGrath, who declines to let the news of her husband’s death ruin the day’s fox hunting. (And can you blame her?)

The Comfort of Strangers

By Ian McEwan

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For sheer perversion it doesn't get any better than Robert and Caroline, a married couple in Ian McEwan's 1981 novel, The Comfort of Strangers. These highly disagreeable people are perfectly matched and thoroughly lethal; they set upon another couple, the divorced Mary and her lover, Colin, who are vacationing in Venice, and gradually destroy them, first psychically and then murderously. It's excruciating to witness, but (thanks to McEwan's incredible gift) you just can't look away. When it's over you think: That could never happen to me. Then you realize: That could totally happen to me. It’s not a very pleasant feeling.

The Women's Room

By Marilyn French

Back in 1977 everyone had an opinion about The Women’s Room. I was 16 and my opinion was: somebody had to write this book, and I’m glad it was French, who had compassion and brains and even, occasionally, a sense of humor. She might have been a touch heavy handed with the symbolism of her characters’ names (the everyman 1950’s husband was “Norm”; his wife, who suffers from the-problem-that-has-no-name, is “Mira”, as in: mirror), but French’s depiction of mid-century suburbia and its marital discontents is breathtaking. For years, I’ve been haunted by the flashcards Mira uses to rotate her household chores: silver, towels, floor wax. One night, as her husband returns from the office to find her sitting in the darkness, she finally attempts to truly speak to him, to forge an actual human connection. That’s when he asks for a divorce.

Brideshead Revisited

By Evelyn Waugh

“She killed at a touch," says Sebastian Flyte of his mother, Lady Marchmain, one half of a marriage so toxic that Lord Marchmain won’t come any closer to Brideshead, their jaw-dropping stately home, than Venice, Italy, where he lives with his mistress. “He hates her; but you can have no conception how he hates her,” says Cara, the mistress in question. “He cannot breathe the same air as she. He will not set foot in England because it is her home.” Lady M’s extreme Catholicism is at the root of all this loathing, except that it isn’t, exactly. Waugh’s masterpiece lets the humanity of every unlikeable character come spilling through the cracks, and beneath this most dysfunctional of marriages we glimpse its heartbreaking bedrock of love.

Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Bronte

Remember when “the madwoman in the attic” was more than just a metaphor for the female imagination? Remember when it signified an actual ... “madwoman”, in an actual ... “attic”? We can all thank Charlotte Bronte for that, and for the ultimate picture of a marriage beyond any hope of redemption. What’s to blame for the state of the first Mrs. Rochester? Tropical perversion? Victorian sexist repression? A single drop of a less-than-lily-white ancestral hemoglobin somewhere along the line? Don’t beat yourself up, even Jean Rhys couldn’t quite pin it down. But in the panoply of infamous marital disasters, the Rochesters reign supreme, which is why every intelligent woman who has ever loved Jane Eyre ought to be asking herself the same question when she gets to the end of the novel: “Reader? She married him?”