Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Gold-Digger's Nightmare

If things work out right, being a fairy tale heroine is a sweet gig. You can rise overnight from nobody to royalty. You can make your fortune through luck, wits, or virtue, without having to compromise or scratch anyone's back. You can guarantee your safety for the rest of your life.

Unless you happen to have married an absolute freakshow. And trust me. They're out there.

Bluebeard, Hermann Vogel
Take, for instance, the obvious Bluebeard. Here's a guy rolling in money and power who gets his kicks by playing on his impressionable bride's curiosity and cutting off her head when she dares to disobey him in one way. Lather, rinse, and repeat ad nauseam until karma catches up with him and he marries a girl with rather aggressive brothers. Are wealth and security really worth putting up with such an abusive control freak?

I'd like to say no, but then I run into Shahryar, whose wife's infidelity broke his brain so much that he went on a marry-and-murder spree, decimating the young female population of his own country to prevent himself from being deceived in love again. While it's clear that no one besides Shahryar is in favor of this policy, the fact remains that girls kept marrying him every day for three years.

A Tale of 1001 Nights, Gustave Boulanger
By the time Scheherazade comes up with her plan to save her fellow women, it's explicitly stated that Shahryar has gone through every girl but our heroine and her little sister. Some were smuggled away; some families fled wholesale. But the most Shahryar's subjects do is pray for deliverance. There's no rebellion of outraged fathers who've had enough. The privilege of being sultana, even if only for a day and a night, was so substantial that it kept a steady stream of girls going into the palace to die.

Of course, not all abuse is as physical as Shahryar's and Bluebeard's. The medieval archetype of the perfect wife was Griselda, whose classic rags-to-riches story is the final tale in The Decameron. Beautiful peasant girl catches the eye of nobleman, who does the right thing and marries her. And then, because he's an emotionally manipulative asshole, he decides to test his wife's virtue and see if she's worthy of the great honor of being raised so high.

The Clerk's Tale, Janet Harvey Kelman
First he tells her that his people are upset that she's only given birth to a daughter. She apologizes. So he has their baby taken away and tells Griselda that he's going to have their daughter killed, when in fact he sends her secretly away to be fostered. When Griselda has a son, he says that his people don't want a peasant's grandson to rule over them, so he has the boy sent away and tells Griselda the same story. She never complains.

Fast forward about 10 years. Lord Bastard McEviljerk isn't done yet.

He tells Griselda that their marriage is over and sends her back to her father's hut. She asks only for a shift in which to return. Then her sort-of ex-husband announces his engagement to a properly noble girl
The Story of Patient Griselda, Master
of the Story of Griselda
and orders Griselda, who knows the running of his castle better than anyone, to prepare the wedding feast for her replacement. Which she does, without complaint.

Of course, the "new bride" is in fact Griselda's long-lost daughter, accompanied by her brother. All is revealed, Griselda is reinstated, and my brain is broken almost as badly as Shahryar's, because for the love of God, why is this a happy ending?! The lord is despicable even within the context of the story; his people scold him for his rank mistreatment of his wife. Griselda's virtues are all of her time; she's not a character, she's a medieval idealization of submission, with no will of her own. There is no way to make this story palatable for modern audiences. Not when the nominal hero is an appalling abuser, and the heroine either too spineless or too intimidated ever to speak out in her own defense. The payoff - raising Griselda back to nobility - is as condescending as the setup, coming as it does from the husband who did everything he could to destroy the wife who never gainsaid him. Even mass-murdering Shahryar has the two key moments of realizing his crime and feeling true remorse. Griselda's husband never even admits that he did anything wrong. He's the Chris Brown of folklore.

The Farmer's Clever Daughter, Gina Biggs
There's a far more enjoyable, but ultimately just as frustrating, version in which the poor girl wins the king's heart by her surpassing cleverness. He's perfectly happy with her until she proves that she's smarter than he is. In a fit of pique, he sends her back to her father's house, allowing her to take only one thing - the thing she loves best - back with her from the palace. The girl promptly drugs her husband's wine and carries him back with her. When he asks her to explain, she gives him the cute and obvious line that since she loves him best of everything in the palace, naturally she took him. This so flatters his injured ego that he reinstates her as queen and promises to listen to her. On the surface, it's the same idea of virtue rewarded; underneath, you still have a woman shackled to a man who doesn't deserve her. In this case, the heroine actively pursues her lousy mate, even when he's proved how small he really is. Is he really what she loves best? Or does she want her privileged life back again, whatever the cost?

Helen and Menelaus at the Sack of Troy, c. 440-430 CE
I know I wrote a panegyric on Menelaus a couple weeks ago. I stand by it. But even he has his awful spots. During the Sack of Troy, he's prepared to kill Helen until, at the last moment, she convinces him to spare her life. His change of heart is most often attributed to her seductive powers. As a Menelaus apologist, I don't think we should rule out the chance of a terrified plea, or an appeal for forgiveness, being just as likely to influence an estranged but fascinated husband. Nor can I reconcile the more complex character of the Iliad with the straightforward Man Wronged Seeks Vengeance at the Sack. But there it is, part of the legend, and we have to deal with it. Helen convinces a man ready to kill her to take her back. Why?

For the same reason as the clever farmer's daughter drugs the king. At that point in time, he is the only future she will ever have. No one will risk another war for Helen, not after the devastation of Troy. She's infamous, whether deservedly or not. Her only chance at regaining a life worth living is to make her life part of Menelaus's. It's a play for survival, and against all the odds it works. If she was his upgrade when they married, the tables have decidedly turned.

At what point does the man himself become identified with the status he represents? The distinction is murkier in the stories where the heroine is reunited with her abusive husband at the end; we're supposed to believe that the triumph here is one of love, not of successful social
King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, John Byam
Liston Shaw
climbing. But it's hard to imagine fulfilling happiness for Griselda, unless she's willing to endure a creep for the sake of the wealth and ease he represents. (In which case she's hardly virtuous for the sake of virtue, which defeats the point of the whole story.) Assuming the king keeps his promise to the clever farmgirl, they might be happy, but he's fickle enough that that's a big assumption to make. We see Helen and Menelaus post-Troy in the Odyssey, and find out that Helen's happiness is contingent on endless self-deprecation; she apologizes constantly for having caused the Trojan War, even though Homer already showed us that she played her part unwillingly and under divine coercion. Shahryar's contrition seems real, but what if he relapses? Only Bluebeard's final bride doesn't have to face the prospect of further abuse, and even she has to deal with the trauma of having married and nearly been a victim of a serial killer.

The scariest part is, in almost every case the woman knows what she's getting. With the exception of Bluebeard's bride, by the time of the reinstatement every discarded or endangered wife knows exactly what her husband's capable of. And they still go back. Something makes it worthwhile for them.

It could be that they've each fallen in love with weak men who abuse them to regain a sense of control. Or it could be the prospect of the life they offer, a more comfortable life than these women would have otherwise, a life of privilege and security that makes it worth tolerating devastating abuse.

Either way, it says something scary.

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