Tolstoy makes this astute observation in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I feel that way about being in a relationship versus being single. Without being reductionist or dismissive, being in a relationship involves much the same framework – you find someone you care about and you figure out a way to make it work. Being single, however, is more nuanced. Prima facie, it’s not, I agree. Anyone who’s not married or involved is single. But in that too – in that simplistic stretch of canvas – there is a subtle myriad-mindedness if you look closely. In this series, I list out a set of 3 books that made me look at single hood differently. Each one of these books stared hard at the single status and teased out a few gems about being by yourself.
1. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
There are several themes running through the book. Three of them are listed in the title, helpfully.
A woman, Gilbert herself, get through a horrible divorce. She also goes through a rough rebound and then is so mauled by her emotional excesses that she decides to go on a journey of self-discovery and healing. Her journey takes her to Italy where she ate, India where she prayed, and Indonesia where she found a balance between the two (and also a lover.)
However, what appealed to, beckoned and inspired me even, was her total, languid exploration of solitude. Perhaps her exploration of single hood is so complete because her exploration of relationships is the same way. There are places in the memoir where she does an autopsy of her relationship with her husband. In all tenderness, she acknowledges how toxic the marriage had become. Finally, she realizes that in crafting her own solitude lay her resurrection, so to speak. When you live well single, you become a more wholesome partner and a more wholesome person. Much truth. Much wisdom.
2. Emma by Jane Austen
There is a facet of Emma that intrigues me today. (One that didn’t interest me the first time I read it.) I wonder about Emma’s self-esteem. I wonder whether her approach of setting-up people but avoiding companionship herself spoke of some kind of a self-worth issue; whether she did not think herself to be good enough to marry someone.
However, the reason I cite Emma as a book for singles is this one conversation she has with Harriet. Emma is a woman of some social standing in Victorian England (that’s the era, I think). Hers is a self-contained society cris-crossed with mores and customs and all of this is tightly tied up with a bow – Marriage. More so if it’s a woman. In that specific conversation, Harriet asks Emma how she would tackle the consequences of remaining unmarried – lack of money, loneliness, and dependencies of old age. She even brings up childbirth and related issues. Emma’s response to Harriet is the stuff good, clear-thinking is made of. Emma breaks it down for Harriet that…“it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public!…but a single woman of good fortune is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.” Emma’s reasoning is quite relevant in today’s times as well. Single women must take measures to insure themselves against social censure or insecurity. Emma was clear about leveraging her father’s love, wealth and respectability in society to play the final trump card in the marriage game – to marry for true love, not social mobility. To marry for love, or not at all.
3. Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert
Yep, you can tell I’m a Gilbert reader!
You may have heard the term bandied about: Commitment – phobic. It’s for those who have been in a series of relationships that could head to the altar but don’t. It is largely deduced that the person in question isn’t getting married because he or she has a phobia, an unreasonable fear of making a long-term promise of intimacy and companionship to anyone.
I’ll take a moment here to bring back your attention to the description of phobia, i.e. –unreasonable fear.
Elizabeth Gilbert apparently fit the profile except that she didn’t think her fears were unreasonable. She thought they were perfectly warranted given the personal histories of her partner as well as hers. (Both had been through soul-searing divorces.) But fate intervened. Gilbert’s beau is a Brazilian trader who the U.S. Immigration becomes wary of. The couple is given a mandate that the only way the two of them can remain together in the U.S. is if they get married. It is definitely not something either of them want. However, if it must be done, Gilbert decides to make her peace with the institution first. So begins her investigation into marriage – that seemingly rigid yet adaptable institution that continues to stand even though part of every generation rises to write it off as redundant. Hers is a personal journey juxtaposed to a larger, evolutionary, social context. This is why Committed is a necessary read – for the way it puts focus on love and norms. She observes (and backs it up with research) how the world over, divorce rates spike high the moment love overrides the well-being of the tribe or society as the main reason to marry. So, if one cannot marry for love alone, what else must one look for? Gilbert outlines several attributes for us. These have existed over centuries and must not be pooh-poohed away for the sake of individuality. These reasons include cultural commonality or attitudes towards money or religious harmony or expectations of progeny. All these, she says, are important considerations. To not look at any of these brass-tacks and expect something as ephemeral or gossamer as love to take over is perilous. It can be done, of course (Gilbert did). But one must know that this choice of love and love alone can come at a very high price.
The decision to marry may well be borne out of societal requirements. But the decision why remains personal to this date. Committed is a story of how a skeptic made peace with ‘Why’ before she said ‘I do.’
Which books have given you most insights on being single? Share with us in the Comments section.