Historians have argued that early novels helped shape public opinion on many controversial issues. And no subject was more often featured in novels than marriage. In the course of the 18th and the 19th centuries, at a time when marriage as an institution was being radically redefined, almost all the best known novels explored happy as well as unhappy unions, individuals who decided not to marry as well as those whose lives were destroyed by the institution. They showcased marriage in other words in ways certain to provoke debate. We will both survey the development of the modern novel from the late 17th to the early 20th century and study the treatment of marriage in some of the greatest novels of all time.
We will begin with novels from the French and English traditions, the national literatures in which the genre first took shape, in particular Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. We will then turn to works from other European traditions such as Goethe’s Elective Affinities and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
We will begin the course by discussing the novel often referred to as the first modern novel, The Princess de Clèves. The Princess de Clèves was also the first novel centered on an exploration of questions central to the debate about marriage for over two centuries – everything from the question of whether one should marry for love or for social position to the question of adultery.