The Ropes Have Been Unbound

Month: June, 2016

The Age of Uninnocence

One of my favorite books of all time is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Interesting fact: I wasn’t sure if Wharton was a man or a woman for the longest time and I still don’t know at the time I’m writing this and can’t be bothered to look it up. But I saw this post on Tumblr about how the woman of color is often the love interest who understands the protagonist better, but who’s openly morally ambiguous and presented as the “wrong choice” and often ends up dying. In other words, Marvel’s Daredevil, with Elektra Natchios and Karen Page. I got to thinking about women who are always the wrong choice, who don’t get the guy, and I settled on Ellen Olenska from The Age of Innocence, played by Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1993 film.

But Ellen Olenska is someone to write home about. She isn’t described as beautiful but attractive in the way one can’t help but care about her, a divorcee in a time when divorce was entirely unacceptable for a woman, and in my opinion, one of the most memorable characters in English literature. Alana Massey wrote about what it’s like to be a Winona in a world made for Gwyneths and Ellen is the Winona in question while May, Archer’s fiancé, is the Gwyneth. But as Massey realizes, life isn’t exactly easier if you’re a Gwyneth but merely different. I’m not a Winona or a Gwyneth because I encompass ideals from both sides of the debate, I’m a Dhaaruni, but if I had to choose, I guess I’d be a Winona, dark haired and lissome, and entirely the wrong choice, or so it seems.

I don’t regard myself as particularly a bad choice romantically, but I feel that in the past, I’ve often been regarded as such. “I’m the girl you’ll die for/She’s the girl who’ll die for you” in the terms of both Marina Diamandis and Dhaaruni Sreenivas. I mean let’s be real, I’m an Ivy League educated, etiquette class attending rich girl with long pretty hair and flowy tops and bright pink nails. Not really a dangerous choice. But there’s something to me that drives people away and I’m well aware of it. I’m sharp in more ways than one and well aware of it, slightly too thin for it to be natural, and inclined to lash out when I’m hurt, all qualities that aren’t ideal in a good wife. My friend Ben used to say that as men grew up, I’d become more and more attractive as a partner because of what I had to offer to them, a real brain and a wholly empathetic persona but I’m still waiting for that day. I used be wholly stressed out that I wasn’t girlfriend material despite spending far too much of my life as a girlfriend, but I’ve grown to not embrace it exactly but come to terms with it. I’m a person like no other and I’m okay with who I’ve grown up to be, good wife or not.

Society is an important subject in The Age of Innocence. I’m not entirely society obsessed because I’ve never been good at fitting into it but it’s always fascinating to me. Wharton writes,

“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs […] quite as, in the books on Primitive Man that people of advanced culture were beginning to read, the savage bride is dragged with shrieks from her parents’ tent.”

In other words, Wharton attempts to take an anthropological outlook on New York society. It’s so incisive and insidious, and feels impossible to escape because of its power but Archer almost does it for his love for Ellen. Gossip Girl takes on The Age of Innocence in the form of a school play in Season 2, and it’s entirely apt. The modern adaptation of being constantly watched by an unseen force, unable to escape society’s pull and ultimately, the choosing of love over what’s dictated. That’s what makes Gossip Girl work at least to a point, the unconditional love between Blair and Serena especially but also between Chuck and Nate, and the prioritization of each other over what society expects of them. Anne Boleyn chose love and got her head chopped off for it and her daughter Elizabeth I remained unmarried for her country but Blair Waldorf chooses love again and again, and survives for it because she’s stronger than what is expected of her. I mean, it’s not a perfect metaphor because Dan Humphrey is no Newland Archer but the point remains sound.

The love in the novel is real though, especially between Archer and Ellen but it’s eternally destined to fail because of the time and place where they live. “We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?” But I was asking the entire time, why not? I cried while reading The Age of Innocence because it made no sense to me when I was 16 why they couldn’t just be together. I’m older now and wiser, I get it but it doesn’t make me any less disappointed. It’s entirely romantic to me, that they can’t be together and Wharton writes better love scenes involving a kiss on the wrist than any romance novel writer with sex and hands everywhere galore. “I swear I only want to hear about you, to know what you’ve been doing. It’s a hundred years since we’ve met-it may be another hundred before we meet again.” I mean, I can’t imagine loving somebody that much, or well, I can but pretend I can’t because it hurts too much to think about it. Either way, I think that it’s a perfect novel to read as a couple if only to give thanks that in this modern age, we’re not constrained by society in that manner, or are we still?

We live in a society that prioritizes male preferences over female needs and that won’t change for a long time. I mean, one day love may prevail but on the whole, I don’t have faith in it. I will take on the position society has dictated for me and so will they, the men that I have the misfortune to fall in love with and that’s just the way things go. But sometimes, I hope, I pray, I anticipate that there could be more to it all but I don’t really have faith in it, at least not anymore. I’ll keep you posted though.

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With a Little Help From My Friends

I’m a girl who wouldn’t be where she is without the unconditional support from my female friends. I can’t bring myself to list them all because it hurts me to think about some of them and there are too many of them to count, but I wanted to write about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls From Corona del Mar because those relationships have been some of the most formative in my life. I’ve been very much in love before but when that went south it was the girls (and boys) who I platonically love who got me through it all.

Elena Ferrante is regarded as the foremost writer of female friendship today. I’ll be honest though, I read My Brilliant Friend and simply wasn’t driven to read the other novels in the Neapolitan series. I mean don’t get me wrong, I loved Lila but at the same time, I found Elena herself almost mundane in comparison. People who are wiser than me love these books because apparently that’s reality- there are women who write and who get things done and there are the women who are written about. And I don’t know how I feel about that sentiment. Elena sometimes didn’t seem real to me, not a caricature exactly but rather a construction of what Ferrante believed a relatable protagonist was like. But I didn’t, I couldn’t relate to her. Instead I kept on wondering what was going on inside Lila’s head because she was both more ambiguous and yet, made more logical sense to me.

Ferrante writes:

“Although she was fragile in appearance, every prohibition lost substance in her presence. She knew how to go beyond the limit without ever truly suffering the consequences. In the end, people gave in, and were even, however unwillingly, compelled to praise her.”

I’m not going to come out and say that I’m a “Lila” and not an “Elena” because I’m not interested in simplifying the very complicated nuances of my personality to that degree but perhaps I am not the target audience for these novels or really for any novel. I’m too much, too intelligent, too self-aware, too beautiful to be thinking so much, or at least that’s what the boys say. The thing is, girls like Lila aren’t supposed to waste their time reading novels written about them because they’re like Chuck Bass, “People like me don’t read books, they’re written about.” But as somebody with such a profound level of anxiety, I can’t help but be obsessed with what people are saying about me. Do they want me? Do they love me? Do they understand me? Sadly enough, the answer to all those questions is usually no, but at the same time, they love watching me because I’m entertaining, funny without meaning to be. I’m a show, not a person and that makes me strangely sad but I’ve learned to embrace it to some degree.

I think that the value in the Neapolitan novels isn’t in the characterization itself though but on the observations that Ferrante makes about society and its structure. Italy in the 1970s is a different world than what we live in today but some things remain the same. My favorite quote from the novel is as follows:

“They were more severely infected than the men, because while men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.”

I really value women’s anger but Ferrante is unequivocally right. We have been stifled and put down for literally thousands of years we’ve been forced to learn to fight in different ways. Addison Montgomery says it in Grey’s Anatomy: “Oh I intend to fight like a girl. I’ll let them kill each other and then I’ll be the only one left standing.” Things are different if we want to be successful and well, alive and thriving as women. We don’t want to abandon our gender but at the same time, we want to be taken seriously. It’s a conundrum faced by our foremothers and unfortunately, I’m no closer to finding an answer to the problem than they were.

The Girls From Corona Del Mar is in a way an answer to the Neapolitan novels but it’s different, and in my opinion, simpler but harder than them as well. I mean it’s possible to sum it up as two girls’ coming of age story but it’s also just wrong to do so. I preferred the beginning of the novel to the end but at the same time, looking at the novel as an entity I become much sadder than I was as I read it. I don’t really know why that is. Mia and Lorrie Ann are both relatable in different ways and at times, as the reader, I wanted to grab them both by the shoulders and shake them because what they were doing made no logical sense. I’m especially referring to Mia’s abortion but also the events leading up to it. As with many other books featuring young girls, I wrung my hands at their life decisions because in my mind, so much of their pain could have been avoided if they just sat down and thought about what they were going to do before doing it. But then, on retrospect, their age played such a huge role in the events in their lives I was perhaps judging them too harshly.

Lorrie Ann in particular though struck me as somebody who was old from a young age, someone who never got the chance to grow up properly. As it says,

“It wasn’t that Lorrie Ann was becoming a Goody Two-shoes. It wasn’t that she wanted to be perfect or loved or approved of. No.

She wanted something much more dangerous. She wanted meaning. And she thought it could be gotten by following the rules.”

That particular passage was something I marked because I’m the same way although I’m disinclined to respond the same way. I became self-destructive in my search for meaning. I drank a lot, I smoked cigarettes, and I didn’t love myself because I didn’t see the point of it. Nowadays, I’m different, more solid and safe but not the least bit complacent and I like who I’ve become. But I had the chance to grow up because I didn’t do anything unfixable like Lorrie Ann did; I could erase my past mistakes and start all over, which is what I’m in the process of doing. The fact remains though, I’m still in search for meaning and I’m scared that if I think too deeply again like I used to, I will revert to my past antics and so, I refrain from thinking too deeply. I put my nose to the grindstone, I work and I work and I work, I don’t think if I can avoid it about what I can’t understand, and things are okay. They have to be.

Female friendship is such a complicated topic and it’s been discussed to excess in recent times. Everybody and their mother has an opinion on Taylor Swift’s squad (I couldn’t care less who she chooses to be friends with and I refuse to put effort into evaluating whether her friendships are calculated), on the nature of cliques and what it all means for feminism. But I’ve been watching Grey’s Anatomy lately and in my opinion, nothing exemplifies true friendship more than the relationship between Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang. They’re each other’s person, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Real friendship is simple, like real romantic love is as well. Everything else than isn’t real friendship, or real love is what’s complicated and what makes us fixate and obsess to an extreme degree. In the words of Jacob Clifton,

“Real love doesn’t make you act crazy. The reason we act crazy when we are infatuated is because we want it to be real so badly — we want to jump over the distance of time that makes real love what it is. That’s the trick of romance: The crazy infatuation love is so much brighter and turns so many more corners so quickly. Much more exciting than the real thing. But real love, at its finest, makes you feel like you are bursting open, like this: Like hearing a beautiful song, or reading a beautiful poem, or hearing a wonderful story, and the tears come and you don’t know precisely why. It doesn’t hurt; it hurts in a way that isn’t hurting, that we don’t have a word for. Largeness. Enormity. It takes a real strength, a real grace, to stand up straight in the face of that. Especially if you’re not familiar with it.”

If I remember right, Clifton is talking about Blair Waldorf and Serena Van Der Woodsen, another example of true love. Or friendship or whatever, since they’re basically the same thing when it comes down to it. But honestly, what I’m trying to say here is that as a species, we seem to overcomplicate this whole friendship thing, and I’m including authors like Ferrante and Thorpe in this. There can be relationships between complicated women that are simple, rooted in love and in nothing else. And I don’t know why everything has to be analyzed to death in order to be considered valid.

But I ask you to consider, what makes female friendships tick? From Meredith and Cristina to Carrie and Samantha to Blair and Serena, why are they so important to us and why do we believe that they say so much about society as a whole? Even Jane Austen said that friendship is the only balm to the pangs of disappointed love but is that what all our female friends are good for? To bitch about the boys who don’t love us? I’m over simplifying but you know what I mean.

All I know is that I love my girls to an extreme degree. I can tell them anything, their approval is more important to me than the approval of men, even men whom I love, and my relationships with them are forever. We can not talk for months on end, and it’s all okay in the end and I have faith in those relationships. But I feel as if I need to be more complicated sometimes as a woman, as if I’m behaving more like a stereotypical guy. To me though, it’s simple: love and let love. And that’s that.