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Interpreting sex and marriage in three American short stories

Does love and marriage restrict a woman's freedom?

Over the past few weeks, I've been studying American short stories in the college classroom. I've come to realize similar themes in three different stories: Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour”; Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” and T.C. Boyle’s “The Love of My Life.”

All of those stories are shocking and entertaining. They examine relationships between men and women. The older stories are stories of uncongenial marriages. However, Boyle’s “The Love of My Life” is concerned with a lusty, passionate romance between late 20th (almost 21st century) teenagers.

Ultimately, each of the three stories are conversations about freedom and the couples in each story represent people in western and eastern societies. In the end, each story suggests that no matter where we are in the world, the government (whether it is democratic or communist) has a driving and controlling influence on the way its citizens engage and participate in sexual relationships.

In “The Story of an Hour” the wife, Mrs. Mallard, is representative of repressed American women who had no voice, no vote and no rights in the late 1800s. Mrs. Mallard is the iconic caged bird with no desire for freedom until it is released from its cage.

In Hurston’s “Sweat” the physically and psychologically abused African American wife Delia represents the African American community. She’s a beat down, burdened and unloved wife. Her faith and belief in deliverance from a cruel and selfish oppressor is unwavering. Her husband’s death is a God send. In fact, in the early 1900s, most unhappily married women found freedom through the deaths of their husbands, rather than through divorce.

T.C. Boyle’s story occurs in the late 90s. The kids are wealthy Bostonians whose parents have 36-inch flat screens in the kitchen. The teens love each other, it appears. They are physically and sexually attracted, unlike the couple in the stories by Chopin and Hurston. But a careless interlude produces a child and the story’s end is tragic. A newborn is murdered, and because Boyle named the teen mom “China,” the teen mom character becomes symbolic of China’s current two-child policy.

In each of these stories, the woman’s freedom is tied to her physical body. If her physical body is tied to a man, she is not free. Likewise, if her physical body is tied to a pregnancy, then she is not free. In all three of these complex and tortuous stories, women’s liberation leads to a destruction of her relationship with her man.

Consequently, these three authors, in three distinct eras, suggest that the male and female relationships are direct reflections of the way their particular society treats its citizens. Women are subjected members of society and men are victims of women's need to retaliate or escape from said subjectivity. This is a bad combination for a marriage.

None of the stories clarify whether or not men and women who truly love each other complement each other, and thus free one another from historically restrictive expectations associated with love, sex, and marriage.

And perhaps that because no one knows whether love frees men and women or confines them, whether they choose to adhere to social conventions (like marriage versus shacking up and premarital sex) or not.

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