Cultures of Marriage

Eric Norton

Marymount University

I taught Susannah Rowson’s Sincerity in a 200-level early American literature survey course of 30 students in our core curriculum. Marymount is a small, liberal arts college with a sizeable business school, school of education, and a school of health professions, so in our core classes there tend to be only a handful of English majors alongside a majority of students coming from a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives. I was pleasantly surprised by how compelling the novel was for most students in the class. Not only that, the text helped them grasp a number of cultural particularities of the early nineteenth century—the structures of feeling around sexual morality, for example—and it was an excellent example of how a literary text can simultaneously help to sustain and challenge powerful ideological formations.

The way into the text for most of them was the contradictory sexual morality confronting Sarah and George. On one hand, Sarah feels bound by her duty to the insincere oath she gave in marrying George, repeatedly throughout the novel rejecting friends’ advice to leave him.  On the other hand, George is relatively free to indulge in a variety of sexual affairs, including inviting into their home the sultry Jessy Romain, with whom Sarah eventually finds her husband in bed. Students immediately grasped the legacy of such a double standard in popular culture today, but they were also sensitive to the important differences between now and then. While students found somewhat strange the morality governing the characters’ sexual activity and social relationships, they were also impressed by the power that moral imperatives of duty and loyalty held over Sarah’s life. We similarly discussed the enduring significance of marriage as a state-sponsored institution (with a particularly interesting discussion of last years’ Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage in the US) while we also focused on the very different way, compared to individuals’ understanding of marriage today, Sarah holds herself accountable to her vows.

The change in subtitles from the serialized 1803-4 version of the novel to its publication in codex in 1813 opened up for students the question of what kind of cultural work the novel might be doing. In fact, it created a moment of clarity for students on literature’s complicated relationship with ideological formations. Sincerity: A Novel in a Series of Letters, as it highlights the novel’s epistolary form, also directs readers’ attention to Sarah’s affiliations with friends and acquaintances with whom she exchanges her letters and the ways such exchanges sustain her both emotionally and physically. Such a focus is quite at odds with what follows from the 1813 title Sarah, or The Exemplary Wife. Here Rowson points to marriage, the juridical and contractual nature of Sarah’s relationship with George, and to the social value Sarah’s story is purposed for.

But then, if Rowson describes Sarah as an exemplary wife, what is she meant to exemplify? I drew our discussion of the novel to a close with this question. Students quickly perceived that what Sarah exemplified could certainly not be what we as readers might assume from such a text: a sentimental dream of happiness and security earned from a lifetime of devoted love and loyalty. With her endless deferrals and rejections of her own desires, her refusal to leave George, and her near-maniacal insistence that sincerity and reason trump all yearnings for happiness and freedom, most, if not all of us in the class agreed that what Sarah exemplifies is a nightmare of marriage. More specifically, she serves as an example of the power that institutions, like marriage, have over individuals’ social lives, as the affiliations Sarah develops and maintains through her letters cannot conquer marriage’s ideological influence over her behavior and decisions.

That is, Sarah is unable to get outside of this influence, and her story offered students a way to talk about how historical perspective obscures culture and ideology. Initially, they were frustrated by Sarah’s adherence to her vows and her continued loyalty to George despite his cheating and abuse. The text helped them see, however, the ubiquity of this structure of feeling around wedding vows and a woman’s responsibility in marriage at the time, even as, in our reading of it, Rowson forcefully challenges such assumptions. Similarly, as we discussed the broadening of access to marriage to same-sex couples, we also discussed certain ideological assumptions about marriage (its value as a nearly-unassailable social good, the appropriateness of its government sponsorship and financial benefits) that persist today as powerfully as assumptions students found troubling in the novel.  This perspective on our relationship to the historical period helped to complicate I think students’ conceptions of history and culture in productive ways.

For all the ways the text led to insightful moments in our discussion, it impressed me even more that the text was both so accessible and so compelling for the variety of students in one of our core survey courses. This combination will make it a frequent addition to my syllabi going forward.

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