Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Novel takes 'till death do us part' seriously

Originally printed July 18, 2012, in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

I didn't know Ann Bauer by name during her time at the University of Iowa last decade, but I did see her often enough in the halls of the English Philosophy Building that I could recognize the photo on her new novel, "The Forever Marriage."

Back then I was teaching Interpretation of Literature, and one of my first assignments each semester was to ask students to read Kate Chopin's 1,000-word "The Story of an Hour" three times and to write up a short response after each time through.

It was a helpful assignment because so many of the freshmen were inattentive readers who trusted too much in what they thought a story should be about and paid too little attention to the actual words on the page.

When those students read Chopin's 1894 story the first time, nearly all grasped the fact that Mrs. Mallard was having a powerful reaction to the news that her husband had been killed in a "railroad disaster." Many of the students, however, assumed Mrs. Mallard was a frail, elderly woman and then further assumed the rest of the story was her lovingly remembering her long marriage.

So when Brently Mallard appears very much alive at the end of the story — and when Mrs. Mallard has a heart attack at the sight of him — many of those first-time readers take the story's final sentence at face value: "When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease — of the joy that kills."

By the second or third reading, students figure out that Mrs. Mallard is a young wife who reacts to the news of her husband's death, not with mournful sighs for what might have been, but with a strange, unexpected sense of relief for the unknown possibilities that come with her being "free! Body and soul free!"

And most students come to realize that Mrs. Mallard's heart attack at seeing Mr. Mallard is caused, not by joy, but by the pain of having to give up her short-lived freedom.

In the classroom conversations that followed this assignment, some of the students said they detested Mrs. Mallard for her reaction; others became much more sympathetic toward the character. But it was only after the students learned to recognize their own faulty assumptions that a worthwhile discussion of the story could begin.

I don't know if Bauer had "The Story of an Hour" in mind when writing  "The Forever Marriage," but she seems to be positioning her 300-plus-page novel as the exact opposite of Chopin's very short story.

When Jobe Garrett dies in the novel's first sentence, his wife Carmen is worried that she won't be mournful enough.

After all, Jobe has been ill with with lymphoma for years, and Carmen is tired of being the dutiful caregiver. Plus, Carmen never has felt true passion for her husband — she married him out of a sense of gratitude and stayed with him for 21 years out of a sense of obligation. Not to mention that Carmen already is getting her passions met through a biweekly fling with a libidinous librarian.

Bauer's Carmen, in fact, seems to think she has become the regret-filled, middle-aged woman that Chopin's Mrs. Mallard was scared to death of becoming.

Carmen even wishes she could go back to their honeymoon cruise — when her distracted young husband started taking a step backwards that would have toppled him overboard. She wonders whether, if she had not reached out and steadied him, maybe she would have been free to marry someone who excites her — at least shack up with someone who wouldn't saddle her with a special-needs child as well.

Bauer's Carmen, in fact, easily could have come across as unsympathetically selfish as many of my students found Chopin's Mrs. Mallard to be.

But Bauer uses her 300-plus pages well. Her Carmen is unexpectedly poignant throughout the amoral descriptions of her own plight — whether it's her realizing that she misses her husband far more than she ever thought she could or whether it's her coming to terms with the cosmic joke/justice of her own breast cancer diagnosis.

My Interpretation of Literature students might not have known what to make of the emotional range in Bauer's novel, but reading "The Forever Marriage" would have taught them much about good writing.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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