The New Yorker

The Ideal Marriage, According to Novels


He said things that I could never have thought, or at least said, with the same assurance, and he said them in a strong engaging Italian.” So thinks Elena Greco, the heroine of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, about Nino, the young man she is just then beginning to fall in love with, in “My Brilliant Friend,” the first book in the series. Nino doesn’t have her best friend Lila’s “capacity to make everything fascinating,” Elena observes coolly, but he is well informed, and when he discusses issues like poverty, he sounds less like a teen-ager than a man, speaking “not generically, in sorrowful accents . . . but concretely, impersonally, citing precise facts.” He also writes for magazines, which impresses Elena, who is herself an aspiring writer.

The four Neapolitan novels cover a period of sixty-odd years, and one of the strengths of the relationship that Elena goes on to have with Nino is the encouragement he gives to her own work. When, as a mother of two young children in her early thirties, she has largely abandoned her writing, he successfully urges her to take it up again. Nino praises her generously: “What I envy most is your ability as a narrator,” he tells her. Because Elena believes in Nino, in his judgment, his admiration has weight.

For a time, anyway. Over the course of years, Elena’s estimation of Nino’s abilities wanes. His ideas become predictable; she finds his desire to be “politically surprising” distasteful. She sees the careerism and pettiness underneath his charming exterior: “He seemed . . . sensitive to the approval of those who had authority and ready to catch out, or even, at times, humiliate out of envy, those who did not yet have enough of it.” These observations coincide with the lessening of her once-overpowering love for him. Even his praise leaves her cold: “I summarized a plot and characters that I was sketching out and he said, Great, very intelligent. But he didn’t convince me, I didn’t believe him.”

This type of attention to a lover’s intelligence—and to those facets of character that fall under the auspices of intelligence and factor into respect, such as fairness, integrity, magnanimity, and sensitivity—is consistent with the way women novelists have long written about love. For as long as novels have been written, heroines in books by women have studied their beloveds’ minds with a methodical, dispassionate eye. The ideal mate, for Jane Austen’s heroines, for Charlotte Brontë’s, for George Eliot’s, is someone intelligent enough to appreciate fully and respond deeply to their own intelligence, a partner for whom they feel not only desire but a sense of kinship, of intellectual and moral equality.

A link between love and respect hardly seems like a unique or daring proposition—until we consider that so many male authors have tended to think about love very differently. Straight male authors devote far less energy to considering the intelligence of their heroes’ female love interests; instead, they tend to emphasize visceral attraction and feelings. From Tolstoy, whose psychological acuity helped to redefine what the novel is capable of, to unabashed chroniclers of sex like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth to contemporary, stroller-pushing, egalitarian dad Karl Ove Knausgaard, men have been, in a sense, the real romantics: they are far more likely than women to portray love as something mysterious and irrational, impervious to explanation, tied more to physical qualities and broad personal appeal than to a belief—or hope—in having found an intellectual peer.

In literature, the desire to find an equal, and the belief that love in its ideal form should comprise a meeting of minds as well as bodies, appears to be a much greater psychological driver for women than it is for men. This abstract difference ripples through the novels that men and women write in all sorts of ways.

Consider “Anna Karenina,” a novel that is, rightly, seen as groundbreaking in its insight into romantic relationships. Tolstoy defied the tradition of ending his novel with the hero and heroine’s happily-ever-after marriage; instead he methodically charted the course of two very different romances—the affair between Anna and Vronsky and the relatively strong marriage of Levin and Kitty. More than a century later, Tolstoy’s sensitive and shrewd depiction of Levin and Kitty’s relationship continues to be one of literature’s best portrayals of marriage. It also reveals what one of fiction’s greatest psychological minds believed about the basis of love.

When the novel opens, Levin is passionately in love with Kitty and devastated when she initially rejects his marriage proposal. Nevertheless, once they are married, he is not as happy as he expected. He wants more time to himself to work and read and think. He finds Kitty clingy and irrationally jealous; he is disappointed that she cares greatly about things he considers petty, like her trousseau and matters of housekeeping. These decidedly gender-typical disappointments feel realistic, and they are rendered with great sympathy to both Levin’s and Kitty’s points of view. But they also speak to the kind of marriage Levin and Kitty entered into and the nature of their love for each other.

Levin was drawn to Kitty because of her beauty and innocence and social suitability. (She is from an aristocratic background similar to Levin’s.) “All the members of this family, and especially the feminine half, seemed to him as though wrapped in some mysterious poetic veil,” Tolstoy tells us. Levin briefly imagined himself in love with each of Kitty’s older sisters, but they wed other men before he was old enough to think seriously of marrying. When he is in his early thirties, Kitty becomes his object. He develops a passion stronger than any he’d felt before. “It was the childlike expression of her face, combined with the slim beauty of her figure,” he muses. Her smile “always transported [him] into an enchanted world where he felt softened, and overflowing with tenderness as he remembered feeling on rare occasions in his early childhood.”

Levin also attributes to Kitty a sort of generalized goodness, which he sees in her “gentle, calm, and truthful eyes.” This is sweet—but it is worth noting that these adjectives might as easily be applied to the eyes of a loyal dog. Beyond a certain requisite baseline—Kitty is intelligent enough not to embarrass Levin—neither her intelligence nor her conversation is something Levin spends much time worrying about. (“He could not help knowing he was more intelligent than his wife,” Tolstoy notes casually after they are married, without imbuing the fact with much more significance than he might in reporting that Levin was taller than Kitty.) For a wife, Levin, the existential seeker, looked not for a thinker like himself but for what is traditionally feminine, what is “wifely.” Kitty is intuitive and empathetic, better attuned than he to many practical realities of domestic comfort. Levin comes, in time, to value these attributes and resigns himself to living with her neediness, her irrationality, her trivial demands. They are, we are supposed to feel, happy, as happy as it’s reasonable to expect to be in a heterosexual marriage, given the realities, according to Tolstoy’s world view, of masculine and feminine nature.

As persuasively and sensitively as Tolstoy renders Levin and Kitty’s relationship, it is nonetheless a very particular type of marriage, one between a thinking man who sought not an intellectual partner but a complement, a yin to his yang—a lovely young wife, a “good” woman—only to find that coexistent with such goodness are desires of her own. Tolstoy treats this kind of complementary marriage as a given: what a sensitive but also sensible man like Levin would naturally seek.

Of course, Tolstoy lived and wrote long before the sexual revolution and modern feminism. Yet that is also true of his literary forebears, a significant number of whom harbored very different ideas. Women authors had long taken aim at precisely the kind of marriage Tolstoy depicted. Austen’s novels, for example, are littered with dry asides about the inconveniences borne by smart men who, “from some unaccountable bias in favor of beauty,” fetter themselves to trivial women. The unhappy Bennets in “Pride and Prejudice” are perhaps the most memorable example.

In “Middlemarch,” George Eliot offers a finer-grained and less comic meditation on this theme. The ambitious young scientist Tertius Lydgate is not consciously misogynistic, but he instinctively feels that overtly intellectual women are undesirable. On meeting the novel’s serious-minded heroine, Dorothea, Lydgate acknowledges that she is attractive, but he feels that she is “too earnest.” “The society of such women,” he thinks, “was about as relaxing as going from your work to teach the second form.” More to his liking is Rosamond Vincy, who is also very attractive and who, moreover, “had just the kind of intelligence one would desire in a woman—polished, refined, docile . . . and enshrined in a body which expressed this with a force of demonstration that excluded the need for other evidence.”

During their courtship, Lydgate talks to Rosamond of his scientific aspirations. Though she doesn’t say much in response, Lydgate “found it delightful to be listened to by a creature who would bring him the sweet furtherance of satisfying affection—beauty—repose—such help as our thoughts get from the summer sky and the flower-fringed meadows.” Unfortunately for Lydgate, he, like Levin, learns early in their marriage that Rosamond cares a great deal about things that he regards as unimportant. Nor is she as sympathetic to his scientific ambitions as he naïvely assumed. Had he known what attracted her to him initially, what propelled her to listen so patiently as he prattled on about his experiments and his home laboratory, he would have been mortified. She was drawn to his haughty good looks, his aristocratic relatives, his social standing. The scientific calling that is for Lydgate the central fact of his existence is to Rosamond mostly just embarrassing in its eccentricity.

In the end, Lydgate and Rosamond’s marriage is far less happy than Levin and Kitty’s, in large part because Lydgate is not as rich as Levin. That is, while Levin can afford to indulge Kitty’s material desires without penalty to his own projects, Lydgate is ultimately worn down by Rosamond’s complaints. He puts aside his aspirations in favor of more lucrative work in order to provide her with the material things she deems necessary.

This seems like a rather bleak perspective on marriage, but it should be read as a bleak view of a specific kind of marriage, and a critique of Lydgate’s romantic thinking. Where Tolstoy is sympathetic to Levin’s vision of love, Eliot is critical of Lydgate’s ideas. (The “distinction of mind and noble ardor” that he brings to his work did not, Eliot says drily, “penetrate his feelings and judgment about furniture, or women.”)

Like Austen before her, Eliot prefers a vision of romance that is based on common values and mutual respect, rather than a faith in masculine and feminine difference (the goose and the gander, as she terms it). One sees this in the second marriage of the novel’s heroine, Dorothea, in which she weds the bright young politician Will Ladislaw, a man who loves her for, rather than in spite of, her hardheaded intellect and firm principles. Charlotte Brontë is even more explicit. “My bride is here because my equal is here,” Mr. Rochester says to Jane Eyre as he proposes. She consents because he has what she delights in—“an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind,” which more than compensates for what she repeatedly describes as his ugliness.

Intelligence matters to these heroines because they crave, above almost everything else, conversation, the kind that requires mutual understanding. Such conversation, the novels suggest, is rare. Austen, for example, derives much of her signature comedy by foregrounding her heroines’ romances against the mundane frustrations and misunderstandings of ordinary social life. Typical is the kind of exchange that Marianne Dashwood, in “Sense and Sensibility,” has with her neighbor Sir John, who teases her for “setting her cap” at a handsome young man. A bristling Marianne responds by telling Sir John that she “abhors every commonplace phrase by which wit is intended.” Sir John merely laughs good-naturedly and repeats the clichés that offend Marianne’s taste and pride. And so it goes at most dinner parties and social gatherings that Austen depicts. In a world populated largely by Sir Johns—people who, whether well-meaning or not, are not capable of understanding them—Austen’s sensitive, intelligent heroines reflexively seek out as love interests those few men who are equally sensitive and equally intelligent, who are capable of meeting them “in conversation, both rational and playful.”

Eliot, Austen, and Brontë were all writing against a climate in which female intellect tended to be either denied or ridiculed, and the “happy” endings, the good marriages, that we see in their work may not represent, as we are often quick to think, a romantic sensibility or a form of sentimentality so much as an attempt to demonstrate the strength and desirability of equal marriages. But to advocate for a position, no matter how just or enlightened, is to risk one’s novelistic objectivity. And indeed there is, in “Jane Eyre,” for example, more than a tinge of wish fulfillment. Rarely is the inner life of another so wholly congenial, so perfectly aligned with one’s own sense of self, as is Rochester’s with Jane Eyre’s. As a result, we believe far more in Tolstoy’s coolheaded depiction of the marriage of Levin and Kitty, just as we believe more in Elena Greco’s problematic relationship with Nino. Still, Jane Eyre’s scrutiny of her lover’s intellect, and her confidence in her own judgments, recalls Elena Greco far more than it does Kitty Shcherbatsky.

Intelligence, taste, conversation—these are the terms on which the heroines of novels by women again and again evaluate their love interests. Male authors, on the other hand, tend to proceed differently. . There are, of course, some notable exceptions: Samuel Richardson, Thomas Hardy (particularly in “Far from the Madding Crowd”), Jonathan Franzen (particularly in “Strong Motion”) and Norman Rush, to name just a few. But for the most part even those male writers who are most attentive to love and sex tend to direct their attention elsewhere—to the face, the body—and to personality only in a loose sense. Here, for example, is Bellow’s Herzog on a lover:

She was short but had a full, substantial figure, a good round seat, firm breasts (all these mattered to Herzog; he might think himself a moralist but the shape of a woman’s breasts mattered greatly). Ramona was unsure of her chin but had confidence in her lovely throat, and so she held her head fairly high. . . . Her eyes were brown, sensitive and shrewd, erotic and calculating. She knew what she was up to. The warm odor, the downy arms, the fine bust and excellent white teeth and slightly bowed legs—they all worked.

We feel Ramona’s allure here. Roth can do this, too: he and Bellow are two of fiction’s most artful portrayers of attraction, adept at provoking a visceral response in the reader, at making sex and sexiness aesthetically rich and intellectually potent. And they don’t, like Tolstoy, insist upon sexual inexperience in women—this is undoubtedly progress. But Bellow and Roth both describe women’s mental qualities casually, carelessly, if at all, in terms far more general than they describe the physical. Ramona is “educated,” we are told vaguely—we know far more about her lacy black undergarments and the multicourse dinners she prepares than we do about whether she is actually intelligent or merely a skillful flatterer eager to connect herself to a prominent intellectual.

In the novel, sensual Ramona is contrasted with Madeleine, the chilly young wife who betrayed Herzog with his best friend and whom he constantly describes as not only beautiful but brilliant. But Madeleine’s brilliance is like Anna Karenina’s—it is presented as a component of her great seductive power, as something diabolical and bewitching, not as a virtue that makes her an intellectual peer. Clever as Madeleine may have been, Herzog reminds us again and again, she had none of the discipline and method of a true scholar or intellect. She is histrionic, attention-seeking—her subjects, from Russian mystics to Eleanor of Aquitaine, are faddish and changeable. (“If she had one consistent interest,” Herzog says, “it was mystery novels.”) Whatever intellectual ability Madeleine possessed, it certainly never prompts Herzog to declare that his equal is here; it was merely an unusual and titillating adjunct to her youth, beauty, and intoxicating (to Herzog) sexual inaccessibility.

This model of love—which is hardly exclusive to Bellow—colors the vision of life that emerges from the novels it informs. Roth’s “The Professor of Desire,” for example, presents a contest of sorts between two types of women, or two types of relationships: the book’s protagonist, David Kepesh, is torn between kinky Birgitta, with whom he had a sex-filled romp across Europe in his early twenties, and Claire, who is innocent and upright, a teacher, with a “translucent mix of sober social aplomb and domestic enthusiasm and youthful susceptibility.” The book, in other words, is a novelized exploration of the virgin-whore complex.

As sly and winning as the novel is stylistically, it’s not hard to imagine the sort of substantive riposte to it that Austen might make. The dichotomy, she would say, is false. Kepesh, tellingly, pays little heed to the fact that he thinks Claire is insipid. She is suitable the way Kitty Shcherbatsky is suitable—attractive, nice, from the right class background—but that’s about it. She is no Lizzie Bennet—she’s not even a Jane Bennet. In contrasting the lascivious nymph with the dull wifely woman, Kepesh has failed to consider another possibility: a relationship with a woman who is interesting or bracing, whose mind he respects.

What bothers many readers about the picture of the world offered by Roth’s fiction and Bellow’s may not come exclusively from misogyny, per se, but rather from a sort of obtuseness, an insensibility to the idea that love could be rooted in qualities that are neither entirely physical nor emptily conventional (that is, wifely or stereotypically feminine). Then again, Roth and Bellow aren’t exactly known for being great respecters of women. The contemporary writer Karl Ove Knausgaard is a different story. His six-part autobiographical series follows a devoted and loyal partner and father named Karl Ove Knausgaard. Karl Ove takes a year off work to care for his and his partner’s infant daughter. He cooks; he does housework—quite a bit of it, more than he thinks is fair. He even takes his infant daughter to a Mommy and Me­–type class in which he is the only male in the room. This is not to say he is a poster child for the brave new world of gender parity: Karl Ove is a conflicted egalitarian—some of the series’s strongest sections recount his resentment over and unhappiness with his domestic life.

Knausgaard’s books swept North America at almost the same moment as Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Both are hyper-realistic, highly modern, psychologically acute accounts of single lives. They are about successful writers, and describe very honestly their protagonists’ feelings about fame and status. And both Ferrante and Knausgaard pay close attention to housework and child care. But in the way that Knausgaard writes about falling in love, he sounds much more like Tolstoy—or a more tenderhearted, and less bawdy, version of Roth or Bellow—than Ferrante.

Take this snippet from an early date with the woman who will become his partner. Linda is talking about Chekhov. “Her lips parted over her teeth when she became enthusiastic, before she was on the point of saying something, and I sat watching her talk,” Knausgaard writes. “She had such beautiful lips. And her eyes, grayish green and sparkly, they were so stunning it hurt to look into them.” As to what she says, or even what impression her words made on him, Knausgaard says nothing.

He fell for her, we learn, at first sight:

She was leaning against the wall. I didn’t say anything to her, there were lots of people around, but I looked at her, and there was something about her I wanted, the second I saw her, it was there.

A kind of explosion.

This sense of a mysterious emotional power echoes Levin’s reaction to Kitty’s smile, which “transported” him back to his childhood.

The wall that Linda was leaning against when Knausgaard first saw her was at a prestigious writing workshop. This context seems to operate the way Kitty’s family operated for Levin: the fact that she is a fellow-participant in the workshop signals that Linda is broadly suitable for him, that she is the right type. With that established, Knausgaard can focus on the feelings she inspires in him. When Linda gives him a book of her poems, Knausgaard says, “I ached with desire for her as I was reading, every word came from her, was her.” Of the content, again, he says almost nothing. Compare this with Elena Greco’s careful attention to her beloved’s conversation, to the ways it falls short as well as the ways it impresses. For Karl Ove, the process of falling in love is not about being seduced by a woman’s words, and what they disclose about her mind, but the powerful and mysterious effect her sheer presence has on him. “I had never felt this before,” he says repeatedly.

Once they become a couple, many of Karl Ove’s complaints are remarkably similar to Levin’s. Linda is clingy, she feels threatened when he wants time to himself to work, she is irrational when she is angry, and to appease her he has to say things that he doesn’t quite mean, because to tell the truth would make her angrier. These issues are compounded, when they have children, by additional complaints, about the allocation of domestic duties.

Knausgaard’s version of love is not the same as Tolstoy’s any more than it is Roth’s or Bellow’s. Ideas about love, about its essential nature and its causes, are highly idiosyncratic and often unstable. And yet, among the endless variations, romantic ideation does seem to lean to one or the other of two poles: the notion of love as a profound, mysterious attraction, or the idea of it as a partnership with a like soul, a person uniquely capable of understanding one’s inner life.

There are many reasons that women might have gravitated more toward the latter. It’s easy to imagine why, for example, Jane Eyre’s needs might be different from Moses Herzog’s. Herzog is a world-renowned scholar with a seemingly endless list of wealthy and successful friends; he has ample opportunity to express himself in writing, and to engage with peers. (Whether Ramona is an idiot or a savant, he won’t want for intellectual companionship.) Jane, on the other hand, is a lowly and lonely governess without any claims to status in the eyes of the world; her wit and originality of mind are entirely unrecognized until Rochester comes along and offers her the outlet she has long yearned for. For centuries, men have had far more opportunities to find intellectual outlets outside the romantic sphere—they’ve been able to travel more, to meet a broader range of people, to have professions, to win the respect of peers. Women, on the other hand, were forced to lean more heavily on love and marriage, for intellectual recognition and companionship as for everything else.

Another factor, of course, is sexism: men may not have expected to find a true intellectual equal in a woman, and so they looked for intellectual companionship among men, and with women sought those qualities they did expect to find—beauty, charm, sex appeal, domestic skill. But concepts like sexism only take us so far in the consideration of personal life. Love will spring up where it will, regardless of whether its basis is in accord with the pieties of the age. More interesting, perhaps, than an argument about the merits and demerits of each conception of love is the simple fact that, if literature is any indication, men and women so often conceive of love differently, and that, even in the face of so much social change over the past two centuries, this difference is still very much in evidence.