Friday, April 17, 2009

Down for the Count

In case you hadn't noticed, the (in)constancy of woman has been a favorite topic of literature past.

Just yesterday I came across (spoiler alert!) Mercedes' pitiful appeal to Dantes in THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO: "...I'm the one who's guilty, Edmond, and if you want to take revenge on someone, you ought to take it on me for not having the strength to withstand your absence and my own loneliness." Dude. The guy was arrested and hauled off who-knows-where, and Mercedes managed to stick it out for eighteen months with no news at all, all the while visiting Dantes' sickly dad, being courted by a loyal friend, and suffering through about fifteen regime changes in France. Ah...fickle, fickle Mercedes!

She is not alone. As long as stories and poems and plays have existed, inconstant women have made frequent appearances, always to be outshone by their more constant counterparts. Think Helen of Troy in the ILIAD (never mind that she was kidnapped! Come on, Homer--you never heard of Stockholm Syndrome?) versus Penelope in the ODYSSEY. Not only could Penelope (a single mom) withstand the temptation to marry again for ten stinking years, she could also weave a mean tapestry.

After many centuries of male writers going on about faithless women, Jane Austen finally pipes up in favor of women's constancy through Anne Elliott in PERSUASION, but really that's Anne's constancy speaking. Doesn't Austen herself admit Fanny Price in MANSFIELD PARK might ultimately have let go her admiration for Edmund and given in to Henry Crawford, had not Henry Crawford been such a dunce? Austen does everyone the favor of pointing out that constancy is not tied to gender but to particular people and circumstances.

Nowadays, in our love-them-for-as-long-as-you-happen-to-feel-like-it world, all the fuss about male or female (in)constancy seems like much ado about nothing. I remember reading CAN YOU FORGIVE HER? when I was on an Anthony Trollope kick: a novel built completely around the conflict that--gasp!--the heroine had broken her engagement to go for another guy, and would the reader be able to get over it? This reader did by about the third paragraph, so the rest of the book felt like a 500-page epilogue. Wrap it up, already, Tony.

Still, our inner desire for constancy cannot be completely squashed. Although, after fourteen years of marriage and two seasons of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, my husband is convinced I'm actually a Cylon, even he is amazed how annoyed I get at Apollo for (spoiler alert!) running off with Dee. Call me fickle.

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