The End of the Novel of Love by Vivian Gornick. Beacon Press, 165 pp., $20.00.
December 1, 1997        

Literature has always been about love; the modern novel has been about love as a problem. More precisely, about love as one instance of the fundamental modern problem: autonomy, individuality, selfhood.Enacting one’s identity, living up to one’s inherited role, offered premoderns plenty of scope for literary heroism; but devising one’s identity, choosing one’s role, is a peculiarly modern difficulty. It has been the burden above all of modern women, the response to which has included several waves of feminism and a line of great novels: Wuthering Heights, Daniel Deronda, The Portrait of a Lady, The House of Mirth, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Women in Love, To the Lighthouse, The Golden Notebook, Wide Sargasso Sea, and others by Meredith, Gissing, Forster, Cather, and more.

These novels show women -- and men -- struggling for self-knowledge, self-reliance, or self-definition against the weight of traditional expectations and dependencies. The terrain of this struggle is love-and-marriage, which is where -- at least in the world in which those novels take place -- most people have their deepest experiences and meet their most significant fates. The essays in The End of the Novel of Love canvass this seemingly familiar territory with urgent intelligence.

Vivian Gornick’s three slender essay collections and short, lambent memoir Fierce Attachments (1987) contain some of the best feminist writing in recent decades. In spare, penetrating prose that leaves out little of the essential and all of the inessential, she has returned passionately, relentlessly, to a single cluster of insights: Romantic love can be -- as often as not has been -- a salvation myth. We are all -- for historical reasons, women especially -- desperately eager to be saved from the excruciating daily effort of emotional independence. What “visionary feminists have seen for two hundred years” is that power over one’s own life comes not from complementary union, from two-in-oneness, but from “the steady command of one’s own thought”; that “only one’s own working mind breaks the solitude of the self”; that “to live consciously is the real business of our lives,” and if this means living alone, hardening our hearts, refusing to melt or merge, then so be it.

The End of the Novel of Love locates these insights at both the center and the periphery of modern fiction. Meredith’s neglected masterpiece Diana of the Crossways, for example, shows one of the most appealing heroines in literature hardening her heart at “the exact moment” when heroines traditionally “melt into romantic longing and the deeper need for union.” So, in similar circumstances, do Gwendolyn Harleth in Daniel Deronda, Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, and Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway. Why? Because “[each] woman has taken a long look down the road of her future. What she sees repels. She cannot ‘imagine’ herself in what lies ahead. Unable to imagine herself, she now thinks she cannot act the part. She will no longer be able to make the motions. The marriage will be a charade. In that moment of clear sight sentimental love, for her, becomes a thing of the past.”

Each of these characters ends badly, but the spectacle of their bravery and clearsightedness arouses pity and terror. So do the real women whose lives Gornick contemplates: Clover Adams, Kate Chopin, Jean Rhys, Willa Cather, Christina Stead, Hannah Arendt. All of them tried, with varying success, to escape the undertow of convention and compromise -- meaning, for most of them, a life centered on relationship and intimacy rather than on work. All of them arrived at an “awful, implicit knowledge”: that the effort of soul-making “is a solitary one, more akin to the act of making art than of making family. It acknowledges, even courts, loneliness. Love, on the other hand, fears loneliness, turns sharply away from it.”

This shift in our spiritual center of gravity -- primarily women’s, but not exclusively -- leaves everything changed, including the premises of fiction. In two superb essays Gornick takes the measure of this change. “Tenderhearted Men” groups Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Andre Dubus as contemporary exponents of male loneliness, desolation, inarticulate suffering: a sensibility formerly (as in Hemingway) hardboiled, now tenderhearted. For all these writers’ honesty and skill, Gornick finds, they have not faced up to why things are not, and cannot be, as they used to be between men and women. They do not, as Hemingway did, blame women; they like and admire women. But they yearn for what is no longer attainable and no longer even desirable: to find in romance “comfort against the overwhelming force of life.”

The title essay puts the case against romantic love even more fully. Not, of course, against love as a precious experience; but against love as the meaning of life, the royal road to self-knowledge, the way down toward the deepest possibilities of thought and feeling -- love, that is, as it has functioned in the modern novel: in “Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and The Age of Innocence ... as well as the ten thousand middlebrow versions of these books, and the dime-store novels too.” This is no longer a plausible expectation, Gornick contends. It used to be, when marriage was sacred, sex outside marriage was sinful, pregnancy outside marriage was catastrophic, and much of the psyche was terra incognita. But love as mystery and revelation could not survive the democratization of experience and the commodification of sex. The ignorance, the suffering, the risk associated with illicit love have shrunk drastically; and so, proportionately, have the courage required and the enlightenment gained.

This is not a cause for regret. Bourgeois respectability cannot be resurrected and does not deserve to be. But it can no longer serve, either, as the main arena of self-creation for real or fictional characters. The “long line of slowly clarifying thought” that ultimately constitutes a self will have to find a new starting point; we now know too much about love. A century of feminism (with a little help from technology) has done its work; the novel of the future will have to be about something else.

The End of the Novel of Love is small in bulk but large in implication. Gornick’s language and literary acumen are beyond cavil; the book is a pleasure and a stimulus: persuasive, finely wrought, quivering with intelligence. It is also disturbing, as it’s meant to be. Here and in her other writing, Gornick is almost lyrical on the grim subject of loneliness. Not loneliness as deprivation but loneliness as integrity: the possible price -- sometimes it sounds as though she means the necessary price -- of uncompromised, fully conscious individuality. About this ideal of untrammeled selfhood there is much to be said (and much is currently being said) pro and con. Gornick’s advocacy is effective, even inspiring. But modern individualism is not, it seems to me, the last word.

In recent decades we have begun to reckon the moral and psychological consequences of our almost incomprehensibly slow and complex biological evolution: how it enables and constrains us; how it reveals each of us to be a kind of organic iceberg with a tremendous hidden mass, inertial but alive and delicately engineered. The genus Homo is around 2.5 million years, or 125,000 generations, old. Romantic love is, for all but a minuscule elite, no more than twenty generations old; reliable contraceptive technology, perhaps three. We do not yet know how much of our sexuality and psychology is hard-wired, but probably a lot. In which case, we will need a better wiring diagram before we can wisely adopt any ideal of selfhood.

Notoriously, the theory of evolution cut no ice with D.H. Lawrence; he didn’t, he scoffed, “feel it in my solar plexus.” Nevertheless, his misgivings about modern individualism -- the weightiest that have yet been expressed, in my opinion -- rested on kindred intimations of animality. “To live consciously is the real business of our lives,” Gornick writes, out of a feminist and rationalist tradition that Lawrence encountered in the shapes of Bloomsbury and Bertrand Russell, two of its finer manifestations. Lawrence would have demurred; he thought that instinct, impulse, and reflex, physical grace, emotional vividness, and ritual unison were no less important than critical judgment and self-conscious individuality. Consciousness, he believed, is accessory, epiphenomenal, “the glitter of the sun on the surface of the waters,” as he wrote on one occasion; and on another: “I conceive that a man’s body is like a flame, and the intellect is just the light that is shed on the things around.”

Lawrence, too, wrote in a tradition: the Romantic critique of the Enlightenment. It has had its incautious, even unsavory exponents; and Lawrence too, as everyone knows, lurched down many a rhetorical blind alley. It’s hard, after all, to be explicit about primal realities. But it’s essential to try. Somewhere between, or beyond, these two great traditions, with their complementary imperatives -- intellect and imagination, analysis and instinct, freedom and rootedness, individuality and communion -- is the best way we can live now.