By Tana Wojczuk
“Someone is screaming bloody murder, and a lot of people are listening.” So concludes Elif Batuman’s review of Gone Girl in The New Yorker titled “Marriage Is an Abduction.” Batuman’s review, more of a critical essay, really, explores the depiction of marriage in the film adaptation and other popular books and films as a girl-snatching, a disappearance. The women here are exceptionally accomplished (though since they are all similarly talented, we might say they are unexceptionally accomplished), but nevertheless unable to intervene in their own destruction. As Batuman points out, some, like Gone Girl’s Amy even try to stave off disaster by heading it off at the pass, sort of like saying a baby is super-ugly to try to avoid the supposed curses that will fall on it if you praise its beauty to the stars. Batuman writes that Amy, who “stages fake rape scenes,” “doesn’t invent abuse so much as anticipate it.”
The narrative Batuman illuminates in her analysis of Gone Girl can be further understood through its parallels in the classic fairy tale, Bluebeard. A gorgeous girl, the daughter, usually, of an undistinguished but wealthy merchant, falls for a handsome, charming stranger. He proposes, but by the day before the wedding she is troubled that she still knows nothing about him, and has never seen his McMansion, er, his castle. Nevertheless, she marries him, and after bringing her home he has to go off on some trip or other, giving her the keys to the castle. She can have the run of the place, except for one small door. He warns her never, under any circumstances, to open that door. Of course the moment he’s gone she opens it, and sees his previous wives, dismembered, murdered and in various stages of decomposition. In her fear she drops the key and it falls into a pool of blood. On returning home, Bluebeard sees the bloody key and takes out his sword to kill her.
She places their heads back on their bodies, and through some charm or other, restores them to life. The sisters then gang up on Bluebeard and kill him.
The story has had many incarnations, including “the Robber Bridegroom” and “Mr. Fox,” and each is a slightly different telling of the girl who goes looking for trouble. One could even argue that Henry VIII is an iteration: Shakespeare was writing the play around the same time that the earliest known versions of the Bluebeard story were being told around firesides in France. (In Henry VIII it’s not Catharine but Anne Boleyn who goes looking for trouble, though the play ends before Boleyn—mother of Shakespeare’s patron, Queen Elizabeth—is beheaded.) The first collected version of Bluebeard was published in 1695 in Charles Pierrault’s Mother Goose Tales, or, Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals. The moral in Bluebeard has been traditionally interpreted as a warning against female curiosity. But the brilliant folklorist, Maria Tatar, argues in her Norton critical edition of The Classic Fairy Tales that the earliest known versions tell a very different story.
In one version of Bluebeard, Tatar writes, the girl is poor and she and her two sisters are married off to the rich stranger one by one. Not knowing what has happened to her sisters, the young bride opens the forbidden door and sees their decapitated bodies. She places their heads back on their bodies, and through some charm or other, restores them to life. The sisters then gang up on Bluebeard and kill him. Then they live happily ever after.
In “The Robber Bridegroom” the girl is engaged to a charming but mysterious stranger and follows him back to his castle the night before their wedding. There, she sees him drag in a naked girl by the hair, chop off her hand (which lands in the bride’s lap while she is hiding behind a barrel, no doubt of some disgusting-smelling pickled fish), and then sees him cook and serve his victim to his buddies. The bride sneaks home and uses the severed hand to show the townspeople who the Robber Bridegroom really is, upon which they fall on him and cut him to bits.
These stories are, like Gone Girl, a response to the vulnerable situation many women find themselves in, leaving the safety and security of their community or family life to marry their husbands: a life that, as Batuman points out, means being isolated in a castle somewhere in the suburbs. In this way, contemporary depictions of marriage as an abduction reflect ancient fears. As Tatar explains, “Anxious fantasies about sex and marriage would hardly be surprising in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, where women married at a relatively young age, where the mortality rate for women in childbirth was high, and where a move away from home might rightly be charged with fears about isolation, violence, abuse, and marital estrangement.” Isolation. Abuse. Estrangement. All key themes in the contemporary narratives of marriage Batuman is responding to. Tatar argues that “while it is tempting to promote stories that stage the joys of heterosexual romantic unions and to banish grisly stories about murderous husbands… it is important to preserve our cultural memory of this particular story and to understand exactly what is at stake in it.”
Batuman’s essay is a re-reading of marriage-as-abduction stories that helps us understand why these contemporary heroines don’t intervene to save themselves.
Tatar asks us to look beyond Pierrault’s sanitized version, to consider this species of tale as a whole. The narrative that emerges in these stories is not, after all, one that merely reaffirms cultural anxieties but that proposes a way through and out of them. “What really seems to be at issue,” Tatar writes, “if one considers the folkloric evidence, is the heroine’s discovery of her husband’s misdeeds, her craft in delaying the execution of his murderous plans, and her ability to engineer her own rescue.” This is the real fairy-tale ending.
Batuman writes that “Any powerful articulation of the need for change is also a testimony to the possibility of change.” However, I would argue that the stories articulating the need for change have been around far too long to expect this possibility to be made manifest without the heroine’s direct intervention. That intervention is only possible when the heroine recognizes the sticky situation she’s in. Tatar shows us that these stories can help us recognize a bad situation in time. But this is only possible if we remember how to read them. It’s what Tatar’s work offers us and what Batuman’s essay is hinting at. Her essay is a re-reading of marriage-as-abduction stories that helps us understand why these contemporary heroines don’t intervene to save themselves.
We create our identities by meeting the expectations of friends, family, our colleagues. Our roles are endlessly complex, as daughter, writer, teacher, friend, and they are constantly recombining to give us a sense of ourselves as rich and complex. But despite these achievements, Batuman argues, American culture still views marriage as a woman’s “crowning success,” revealing that “their carefully created and manicured identities were never the point.” The problems that arise when we construct identity around talent and success deserve more attention, but the point here is that marriage itself is not the problem; treating marriage (any marriage, even a terrible one) as identity is.
Treating marriage as a semiotic term that ascribes meaning to the object is a problem for many reasons. First, it erases important distinctions in kind, between good marriages and abusive ones, or simply unhappy ones. It concentrates meaning in the social value, rather than the practice of marriage and oversimplifies identity, regressing back to a traditional idea of identity as something intrinsic and static rather than something at least partly performative, fluid, something over which we have at least a modicum of control. Marriage becomes the grand poo-bah of selfhood, eclipsing the fact that marriage is not “self” but an evolving state of being. In Bluebeard and its variants, the heroine intervening gets herself out of a bad marriage, without the sense that she is giving up her life, that the end of the marriage is a kind of death. Marriage is understood in communal and practical rather than ontological terms.
What’s at stake in these stories is nothing less than, as Batuman articulates, “the possibility for change.” Gone Girl and its ilk make us ache for the real fairy-tale ending when the resourceful girl not only anticipates but intervenes in her own story to save herself. The question Batuman’s essay raises is, how to intervene when the abduction is not just physical but ontological?
Tana Wojczuk is a nonfiction editor at Guernica and a lecturer in Columbia University’s Undergraduate Writing Program. @tanawojczuk