Stranged marriages : unconventional matrimony in western American fiction.


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Marriage does more than unite individuals. It affirms existing social structures and promises to perpetuate them. Embedded within marital conventions are traces of a society’s assumptions regarding race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, and politics. Fictional marriages, therefore, traditionally signal a return to social order, an affirmation of the dominant values of a given culture. Some writers, however, especially those writing on or about the American frontier, recognized in the institution potential to challenge reified social norms and eastern literary conventions. Through their treatment of nontraditional marriages, Mark Twain, Sui Sin Far, and Willa Cather denounce or reveal racism, greed, religious prejudice, class inequalities, and oppressive or restrictive gender roles. Additionally, they draw readers’ attention to the arbitrariness of marital or social conventions for purposes of humor or satire.

This study examines attempts to defamiliarize, or “strange,” marriage in American fiction set west of the Mississippi River and written between 1865 and 1918. During the years following the Civil War, white, middle-class Americans perceived a crisis of marriage and family brought on by the threat of interracial marriage due to the emancipation of African American slaves and rising Chinese immigration, the brazen flouting of federal legislation by Mormon polygamists, a rising divorce rate and declining birth rate among the social elite, and the challenging of traditional gender roles as a result of women’s rights movements. Mainstream America responded to these challenges with an increased emphasis on conformity, aggressively legislating against deviant forms of marriage and strictly limiting immigration, particularly from China. The writers in this study resisted these efforts through portrayals of interracial marriages, same-sex pairings, polygamy, marriages late in life, arranged marriages, and unorthodox representations of marriage. In a postwar era of conformity, when the newly re-United States reevaluated its national identity, Twain, Sui Sin Far, and Cather “stranged” the basic building block of society to remind readers that, in America, union must never come at the cost of individualism and independence.



Marriage. American fiction. Convention.