Arranged Marriages and Romance in "Our Town"

My high school drama club once put on a production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. In case you're unfamiliar with this play, let me assure you it is quite the interesting piece of literature, simultaneously simple and bizarre. The entire plot is composed of daily life and death in the commonplace New Hampshire town, turn-of-the-century Grover's Corners. And the entire production is performed with pantomimes instead of props. It took a good long time for it to grow on me, but by the time we took our final bows I loved it. 



There are quite a few thought-provoking conversations in this odd little play. One of my favorites happens at the beginning of Act II, on the morning of a wedding. Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, the parents of the groom, are reminiscing and philosophizing at the breakfast table.

Over an invisible plate of French toast, Doc Gibbs tells his wife, "when I saw you coming down the aisle, I thought you were the prettiest girl I'd ever seen. The only problem was, I'd never seen you before. There I was in the congregational church, marryin' a total stranger."

To which Mrs. Gibbs replies, "And how do you think I felt! Frank, weddings are perfectly awful things--farces, that's what they are."

As an actress trying to figure out how to deliver that reply, I puzzled over Dr. Gibbs' line a good deal. What did it mean, exactly? Because it surely couldn't be taken literally. Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs didn't have an arranged marriage, for Pete's sake. They must have at least seen each other before their wedding day. After all, they're such a happy and loving couple--it's just impossible that they married without falling in love first!

But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.

Why shouldn't Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs have an arranged marriage?

More to the point--why can't an arranged marriage be happy?

Of course, the idea sounds backwards and laughable to us advanced modern people. "Arranged marriages?" cry the masses. "Those were an oppressive device of the Middle Ages! They belong to ages of darkness and chauvinism and bleak despair! You can't be happy if you're married to a stranger. You should only marry someone you love."

Ah, but there's the clincher.

What do we mean by "love"?

If you were to ask a random person in the street, "What is love?", chances are good you would get the response that love is a feeling. A beautiful feeling. The most beautiful feeling in the world. A feeling so strong and glorious and overwhelming that it's the most powerful force in the universe.

Not a thoroughly bad answer. Love is beautiful, and glorious and overwhelming and powerful and all that.

But it's more than just a feeling.

If you were to ask the people of Grover's Corners, "What is love?", I think their answers would be different from those of the average modern American.

For Mrs. Gibbs, love is getting up before sunrise to stoke the kitchen fire and sweep the floor and make breakfast for husband and children.

For Dr. Gibbs, it's staying up all night to bring a pair of Polish twins into the world.

For their son George, it's giving up his dreams of playing baseball to chop wood and till fields beside his chosen bride.

They know, these common people of turn-of-the-century New Hampshire, that love is a choice. A choice to stick with one person through the flats of married life as well as the ups and downs.

Love isn't a feeling. It's an action.

 


That's what makes it so beautiful and glorious and overwhelming and powerful. That's what makes it so romantic: it doesn't always feel romantic.

Too often in our culture, when we say "love," we mean "passion." And passion is not a reliable thing. Love should be reliable, because it's what marriages and therefore lives are built on. 

Grover's Corners people are intensely practical people. Matter-of-fact, down-to-earth, simple people. They know they're not going to find a flawless Prince Charming or live in an endless honeymoon. So they aren't going to be disappointed when love gets hard or boring. They expect love to be hard and boring.

Consequently, these Grover's Corners people are more romantic and daring than we modern passionate lovers. This can be seen very clearly when George and Emily no sooner realize they care for each other than they decide to get married. 


How many modern lovers would do that?

Not many.

We're too cautious these days for anything that crazy. Instead of plunging into marriage as an end goal, we go to the opposite extreme of tip toeing around it, putting it off, keeping it at a safe distance. Maybe someday we'll make the move, but not yet. It's too permanent. Too scary. If we make the wrong choice, it will ruin our lives.

Now, obviously, there is nothing wrong with prudence. I'm not by any means advocating eloping with the first cute guy who catches your eye (he might be a criminal) or marrying your boyfriend tomorrow (preparation is a good thing).

But I think we could use a dash of Grover's Corners romanticism in our modern worldview. It might be a fitting antidote for the fear and inertia crippling our family life.

Because if we spend too long looking for Prince Charming--we won't find him. If we look too hard for the person who's our perfect match--we won't find him. If we depend on ourselves to make marriage successful through our own power--we're going to be sadly disappointed.

To quote G. K. Chesterton, men and women aren't compatible.

There's no way we fallen humans are going to make marriage work by ourselves.

We can only depend on the grace of God to get us through.

While that terminology is never used in Our Town, the characters understood the truth of it. They knew the only way to make a marriage work was to plunge into it. To trust that everything would work out. To stubbornly refuse to let it fall apart. To realize that once they went in, there was no going back.

"Marriage is a duel to the death which no man of honor can refuse."

The Stage Manager who narrates the play says he doesn't know what it means that marriage is a sacrament.

But I think Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs certainly do. 

Now, m'dears, talk to me! Are you familiar with Our Town? What are your thoughts on arranged marriages? And for those of you recovering from Camp NaNo, how went it?  


Comments

  1. I most heartily agree! I've always loved/wanted more books where arranged marriages work out - that's one of the reasons I love The Goose Girl so much. Because, really, getting an arranged marriage is every bit as likely to succeed as looking all over the world, and it works faster. Expecting a Prince Charming is good, but turning down all others is not. Thanks for the amazing post, Megs!

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    1. Wonderful way to put it, Belle--"Expecting a Prince Charming is good, but turning down all others is not." Ooh I reeeallly need to read The Goose Girl! It's sitting on my shelf waiting for me, but I'm afraid I have a few detective stories lined up first. But yes. I've often thought it would be fun to write an arranged marriage story...

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  2. A friend of mine is going to have an arranged marriage, actually. Granted, she's of a different culture. But I'm happy for her, and I wish her all the best!
    "There's no way we fallen humans are going to make marriage work by ourselves.
    We can only depend on the grace of God to get us through." Well put. That's how it is with everything- but especially marriage, I suppose.

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    1. Oh, wow, that's neat! I didn't know arranged marriages were still "a thing" with anyone--but I suppose that makes sense. Congratulations to her!

      True, true. We'll fail at anything and everything on our own power.

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  3. oh, love this so much! this is a topic I'm passionate about (haha, kinda ironic to be passionate about love being a choice ;)

    I didn't know about the Chesterton quote! I so love that. And I really need to get my hand on this play, Our Town.

    I wrote a blog post similar to this subject awhile back. I always love to share it with likeminded people. http://keturahskorner.blogspot.com/2016/11/love-at-first-sight-myth.html

    I'm also working on a ancient Egyptian retelling of Cinderella that has the theme of, "Is love fate, or a choice?"

    I will admit, while I agree 100% with all of this and write a ton about it, I still want to know my guy before I marry him. And while I'm not totally against other people being involved, I, too, want a large hand in the "arranging". But it's because I'm still deeply rooted in our modern culture.

    Lovely post, and lovely blog!

    keturahskorner.blogspot.com

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    1. Thanks so much, Keturah! I'm glad it resonated. Heehee, it's a very good thing to be passionate about, methinks. :)

      Chesterton quotes in general are the most amazing bits of English on the planet after Scripture. It took awhile for Our Town to grow on me, but eventually it did.

      I love your post! Funny, I think people are starting to realize "love at first sight" isn't a thing...but instead of responding with the truth, "Love is a choice," they fall for the lie, "Love isn't a real thing." Love at first sight *could* be a real thing if we chose to transform those feelings of attraction into real solid love.

      Ooh ancient Egypt! That sounds really cool. I'd love to learn more about it!

      Same here. :) I wouldn't be too keen on having my husband picked out for me. But a dash of Grover's Corners recklessness and medieval royalty's trust--yes, please.

      So wonderful to meet you, Keturah!

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    2. I'm loving how so many people are realizing this! I just hope more discover how to love EVERYONE, as that's the greatest commandment ;)

      It's a fun novel! I'm hoping it will be a book within the next couple years (just need a publisher, first, haha!).

      Yes, nice meeting you, too, Megan! So glad to have another likeminded blogging friend ;)

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    3. True, our world is thirsting to realize that greatest commandment! It'll take a miracle, but every step in the right direction is a small miracle in itself.

      Heehee, I know how that feels! Best of luck with turning manuscript into published book!

      Agreed. :)

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