A Proper Marriage by Doris Lessing

– P. Jyothi 

          Marriage is an important institution set up for social balance. With due respect to the harmony expected out of this institution it’s a fact that in a patriarchal set up it’s the woman who actually loses her ‘Self’ to make a marriage work when compared to the man who enjoys the privileges of this institution the most. Ironically so many illusions surround this institution that we never dare to speak the suffocation involved in it. Women who suffer this irony also do not dare to speak out because they think that it is them as individuals who are wrong in feeling the way they feel and that everywhere and in every household woman enjoys the sanctity of marriage. This misconception and assumptions drive women into silence, confusion and depression. Instead of understanding the politics of marriage they gloat with self pity and low confidence, blaming themselves for not feeling high in such a respectable

          It is always decided by the society how a married woman should be responsible, dutiful, sacrificing and again feel happy for the supposed marital bliss. Doris Lessing breaks all these expected norms and honestly brings out the suffocation a woman feels in the institution of marriage, motherhood and among her expected wifely duties. A PROPER MARRIAGE is the second novel among the semi autobiographical series titled “Children Of Violence”. This series is a combination of five different novels and A PROPER MARRIAGE is the second book which in detail speaks about the trauma faced by a young woman who marries out of love and gets stuck in it pressurized by the idealized views of the society towards an institution called marriage.

          Martha is a strong willed Independent woman who wants to live life according to her norms. She lives a free spirited life, makes friends with women who think like her, spends time in clubs and pubs and finally falls in love with a young man Doglas. She finds him open minded, dependable and handsome. She falls for these traits and starts a life with him with all the needed enthusiasm when she is just nineteen years
old. She thinks that she has made the right choice and believes that she is the master of her life. But once she starts living with Doublas she finds that something is absolutely not right between them. She gets to know the domineering nature of this young man. His real self is far away from the heroic picture she assumed while dating him and before she actually understands her life she becomes pregnant. Everyone around celebrates the moment and she is still confused not able to understand how to react to this added responsibility. Douglas feels proud and gives a feeling of Mission achieved and enjoys his status in the society. Martha finds other women respecting her, loving her for being a mother which is a choice she was compelled to accept.

          The process of giving birth, the awkwardness in it, the casual take of the people around, on all the pain a woman needs to endure and absolutely no understanding from the men folk who are otherwise engaged with their manly endeavors depress her and she starts thinking about the purpose of her life and intellect. She feels wasted nursing the baby who is so different from all the babies discussed in the
baby books. She finds that being a mother and understanding the infant is not an easy job. Things do not go the way she wants them to and she is disappointed with herself and a lot of guilt accumulates within her.

          At this time she finds out that the love she felt for Douglas is not permanent and actually was not love in the first place. Marriage is not what people show it to be. Women and society are cheating everyone around by actually projecting what does not exist in the so called marital bliss. They also accepted that behaving so is a duty of every respectable woman. Her friends who also got married along with her feel
the same and are not ready to accept things as they are. The open minded friendship what they shared previously has changed and each one are trying to show that all is well with them. Disappointments are to be disguised and happiness has to be projected and this becomes the only duty of a married woman.

          Martha is not able to accept this strain and tries to lead a normal life accepting how she feels and understands things. World war II starts and many young men join the army. Douglas also enrolls himself along with his friends and goes to the front. Martha is left alone to take care of her infant and she finds herself very lonely and helpless. She tries to get into terms with her motherhood and decides that finally
she has to bring her stubborn baby in her own way and decide things for herself. She stops reading children books and talking about other children and decides that every mother and child are different. She starts using unconventional ways in dealing with her daughter Caroline, and is surprised that they actually work.

          Martha also tries to have a life of her own. As other married women, who have their men in the army she tries to befriend soldiers who are staying in her town. She also tries to get close to them but the experience with Douglas and the failed assumptions keep her away from further emotional attachments. She understands that this is not the kind of group which can fascinate her any more. She now feels very much detached from the courting process and senses the artificial behavior which goes in the process.

          Meanwhile she also gets an opportunity to examine the political scenario going around them. She understands that there is a lot of change happening outside and she is not able to be a part of it. She feels life moving around her and finds herself stagnant and immobilized struck in the institution of marriage which now appears as a hoax. She tries to attach herself to a few social and political groups and finds that there are enough differences in them too but there is a lot of activism and that is the
essence of life.

          Douglas comes back after diagnosed with an Ulcer in the stomach. Martha is not prepared for a life with him after living alone for some months. She takes time to get used to Douglas’s presence in her life once again but now she is a changed woman. The initial attraction towards male company has lessened and she finds that the man she had married is not the one she assumed to be. Sex is not attractive now as there is always the fear of getting pregnant. Douglas buys a huge house and is able to afford a lot of servants at home who naturally are the colored poor folk. Martha is not a bossy woman and her mother who now visits her regularly reminds her that her attitude is not apt for a house wife. She always complains that Martha is unable to order her servants and control them. Martha finds this unnecessary. The institution of marriage gives a lot of power to the woman of the house and she tends to control
people around her bossing them including her husband to have a perfect family atmosphere and life around her. By this time Martha has stopped feeling the perfectness in marriage, Her views on people and life around are very much different from others and she fails to take control on her family, servants and husband which according to Martha’s mother is the failure of a perfect wife.

          Martha understands that this life does not suit her. She is not ready for another child and Douglas desperately wants to be a father again. As any other married woman Martha is afraid to openly talk about her feelings. She feels withdrawn and very much detached from her husband. Douglas senses the change in her. He senses his wife slipping out of his control and wants her back. He decides that making her pregnant again will bring her back onto the line of womanhood. Martha strongly opposes this idea and does not show any interest in becoming a mother for the second time. She is very careful while having sex with Douglas which becomes a duty had is always cautious about the care taken during the act. The more Martha resists becoming pregnant more Douglas insists her and is unable to convince her. He feels insecure with this attitude. Martha understands that getting a woman into motherhood is a means of controlling her life, time and thoughts and now she is not ready to fall for it again on the name of duty or love.

          Douglas is called for a job outside and goes to attend it for a few weeks. During this time Martha gets connected to the political groups in her town and finds that she has got a purpose in life which is more true and meaningful when compared to the life of a boring wife. She gets close to a party worker William and her leftist ideology is noticed by everyone around. People start talking about her active involvement with these groups and naturally an affair is suspected between Martha and William.
Douglas comes back to the town after hearing these rumors.

          Douglas was never faithful to his wife and everyone knows it. While away from home he had his little flirtations and connections with other women but now he is agitated after hearing about his wife’s active involvement with the working sector. He tries to control her and plays the victimized husband trying to gain sympathy from older woman. These women try to talk to Martha and suggest to her that her adjustment in life is a duty expected out of a dignified married woman. When Martha tries to talk about the flirtations of Douglas, these women brush them aside saying that Men are different. Martha is hurt with these statements. Women who are supposed to understand life, marriage and their fellow beings force her to compromise with the situation and show pity, extreme love and sympathy towards Douglas. Even her mother finds Martha’s indifference and involvement with other activities outside her house disgusting and disloyal.

          Douglas makes life hell to Martha asking her to accept her infidelity. Martha understands that Douglas does not believe that she had cheated on him but wants her to accept it to have control on her. He starts asking her about all the men involved with the political work and at a stage Martha accepts that she had sexual relations with every man involved in the party. Douglas is convinced for that moment that it is his wife who has been wrong all the time but starts the same interrogation every other day to feel the dominance over her.

          Martha still tries to put up with this behavior because getting out of marriage is not as easy as people assume about women who decide to come out of it. Finally she moves out of the house without even a demand for a divorce and decides to live on her own taking up a job but deciding things for herself and living a life without any regrets and false assumptions. She decides to be happy in her own way. I WILL
LIVE DIFFERENTLY is the statement she gives to herself and moves out of the institution called Marriage. The novel is not just another story which protests against normal healthy relationships. It speaks about the hype which goes around marriage and how many women are fooled into it. The privileges to be lost, and compromises to be made by a woman to stay happily married were never discussed with such
blatant honesty and that makes this book worth reading. Motherhood is always a glorified subject and no one actually wants to understand what a woman experiences but all those thoughts are thrust upon her about how she needs to accept  otherhood and react to it. The conditioning of the society to make good wives and mothers never applies to men. Men are assumed to be different while Women who as individuals are different from one another are expected to behave, think and act alike once they are married. Marriage is made to look attractive and motherhood is made to look saintly and a purposeful period in the life of a woman but is it really so is the question this book honestly explores. Every woman identifies her struggle with Martha’s and understands the hypocritical behavior mentioned in the novel which we are afraid to speak about.

          This is one of the best novels on the feministic view point worth reading and discussing .


Please follow and like us:

One thought on “A Proper Marriage by Doris Lessing”

  1. The message from the book, as well as your review stand out as straight ‘feminist’ point of view with regard to a ‘proper’ marriage. No clue or suggestions are made by both as to how the marriage could have been saved, or what a ‘proper’ marriage is all about.

    While the female lead deserves all sympathy on occasions and the male chauvinism of the male lead needs unconditional condemnation, it is the behavioural attitudes that wreck a marriage and not the systemic failure of the institution.

    We can see 3 types of marriages from around our own surroundings.

    1. Failed marriages, both on account of husband and wife
    2. Marriages sustaining on account of countless sacrifices made by a wife or a husband despite totally unacceptable character/behaviour of the other spouse.
    3. Marriages glowing all along, strongly founded by love and trust between the spouses and honour for the likes and interests of each other.

    Wanted to write more, but sorry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.