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How Do Bad Marriages In Literature Often Enable The Protagonist’s Character Development?

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Dee Das

Staff Writer

Trying to live, love, and say it well in good sentences. Pronouns: she/her. Contact:

For women we meet in literature, bad marriages often facilitate character growth. Women don’t need to have to deal with terrible husbands just to step into their own power. However, the bad husbands and their many antics awaken the fierceness that lies within them. Bad marriages make these female literary heroines push back, not just against their husbands, but also against a society that expects women not to have minds of their own.

A good example of this is Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, which introduces us to Adah. She is a resourceful Nigerian woman trapped in a bad marriage with Francis. Francis and his people wanted a marriage of convenience, and it was thought that Adah’s education and ambition would support their family financially and could be their ticket to a better living situation. Adah was funding Francis’s education in the UK, and while he was completely dependent on her, he didn’t have an iota of gratitude. One of the first instances where Francis did terribly as a husband was when he found an accommodation that was in no way fit for Adah and their children. Then he became abusive, forcing himself on Adah and pestering her for more children, not caring about how Adah felt about this situation. He thought he was entitled to her body and the abuses started escalating every day. However, Adah wasn’t one to back down. Francis’s idea of leaving a mark on the world was to terrorize his wife whereas Adah’s was to not be like Francis.

Despite her pregnancy and the exhaustion associated with it, Adah found employment and put her all into supporting herself and her children. Working as a librarian brought her closer to good people whose warmth further emphasized how horrible a husband Francis was. With encouragement from her colleagues, Adah also completed her first manuscript, hoping to finally pursue her dream of becoming a published author. Francis, boiling with rage, envy, male chauvinism, and his feelings about being a failure, burned it. Something clicked in Adah then and she was no longer interested in sustaining her loveless marriage. Francis was not just a walking, talking contraceptive, but also vile and inimical to Adah’s growth as a person. She removed him from the equation by leaving him to fend for himself. It was natural to lose one’s bearings in the face of Francis’s maudlin self-pity that soured into violence. However, Adah stood tall and focused on being her own person. Her marriage to Francis taught her everything she didn’t want in her life. 

A woman is seen covering her face

Then there is Angie Cruz’s Dominicana, where teenager Ana was married to a man in his thirties, Juan. Marrying her off to a man who clearly turned out to be a brute was her family’s only way of immigrating to the USA. Her marriage to Juan was transactional and not an outcome of love. Yet Ana tried to make do. An alcoholic by nature, Juan quickly turned abusive. He slapped Ana at the drop of a hat and expected complete acquiescence from her, sexually or otherwise. Ana was taught by her parents to expect less and less from her life, so her husband’s savagery was all too normal for her. Her survival was at risk and oppression was the only constant in her life. Then Cesar, Juan’s brother, came into the picture. Juan was Ana’s road to meeting Cesar who in turn would change her life.

Juan was away for a couple of months, giving Ana the chance to meet and spend time with Cesar. He gave her a glimpse of a different life. Together they ate hot dogs at Coney Island and danced at the Audubon Ballroom. He made Ana realize that suffering didn’t have to be her default state of being. With his unwavering encouragement, Ana started making money of her own. Taking baby steps towards establishing economic independence for herself would ultimately free her from thinking that she deserved nothing but a life of servitude. Cesar’s love instilled in Ana a desire to demand better from life. For the first time, she was becoming aware of her rights. Juan’s presence was stifling, which further pushed Ana to seek a better life for herself. She didn’t forsake her responsibilities towards her family by eloping with Cesar, and neither did she stay stuck in an overbearing marriage with Juan. Rather, she took her own time to forge her path towards a more fulfilling future while preserving genuine romantic love in her life.

While bad marriages suck all the joy out of their lives, these women don’t kneel in the face of adversities. They force the world to turn around for them. In a world where every day, women are compelled to endure unhappy marriages, these women become inspirational figures, urging their real-life counterparts to demand better for themselves and expect dignified reciprocity from their partners.