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willoughby woes

Out of all the couples in Austen’s novels, Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby of Sense and Sensibility most resemble a modern relationship. If you know anything about the novel, you’re probably thinking, “no way! Willoughby is a playboy and somewhat of a loser, why can’t modern-love be Darcy-and-Elizabeth-love?.” Well, think about it: In an era strictly enforcing rules of courtship, with a chaperone always present among the lovers, Willoughby and Marianne are instead, like modern couples, often alone together. They are in constant communication via letters, (the modern couple’s texts), and quickly make things serious without spoken commitment (the modern couple’s swift jump from ‘hanging out’ to cohabitation). Are things looking familiar yet? But what about the nineteenth century rules of marrying within your social class? There’s nothing like that today, at least, it’s nothing spoken of. You’re right, Willoughby deserted Marianne because she wasn’t wealthy enough to cover his expensive lifestyle. Since he was a “gentleman,” he couldn’t raise his fortune himself by working, but had to marry a woman with her own cash.

My affection for Marianne…was all insufficient to outweigh that dread of poverty or get the better of those false ideas of the necessity of riches…it had been for sometime my intention to reestablish my circumstances by marrying a woman of fortune. -John Willoughby

Modern lovers aren’t inhibited by that thank goodness, so how does this relate? Well, wait just a moment: though the days of marrying for money as a general, recognized, and accepted practice are long since gone, the days of quantifying love are actually just beginning:

Details is a fairly recent, immensely popular, men’s magazine. It’s target audience is men from their early twenties into their late thirties, and has everything from style and relationship advice to parenting and politics. In an article entitled “The No-Baby Boom” from their April 2011 issue, author Brian Frazer relates a burgeoning new trend of couples who are saying “none” to the usual after-marriage-question, “so, how many kids are you planning?” The article has some good points, indeed, if everyone put as much thought into the not so fun realities of having children as the couples in this article did, perhaps there wouldn’t be so many dysfunctional families with parents obviously uncommitted and unprepared to raise their children. However, Frazer’s reasoning, and the reasoning of many of the couples for not having kids was, on the whole, rather unsettling. For, they had succeeded in turning one of the most unconditional symbols of love (that of a parent’s love for their child) into a cut-throat spreadsheet of a cost-benefit analysis:

details magazine

vmmv opinion article

Are you beginning to see the problem? Begin to “count the hours” that are necessary involved in “loving” a child, and you begin to slide down the slippery slope of elevating the cost-quantities involved in love, above the act, benefit, and rewards of the emotion of love in all of your relationships. Count the hours you spend with your significant other, the money you’ve spent on them. Goodness, count the money you spend on that special dog food, there’s a lot of cost involved there and I don’t get much back from my pet besides a sideways glance and an ambivalent lick when they’re feeling a bit friendly. And your kids? Now there’s something pricey, and Frazer seems to think that children just don’t make the cut anymore:

 Unless you’re among the less than 2 percent of Americans who farm for a living and might conceivable rely on offspring for free labor, children have gone from being an economic asset to an economic liability.

I know Willoughby would agree with this quantifiable theory of relationships. Though he openly admits to loving Marianne Dashwood, he also declares such love was “insufficient” to overcome the loss of his lifestyle. And, worse still, while Austen portrays men like Willoughby’s choice to emphasize wealth and comfort above love as a choice concluding in regret and misery, Frazer actually positions the men (and women) who choose childlessness to be the wiser ones: “Regret is more common among the breeders,” he says, and goes on to include the following disgruntled parents’ quips: “I have no time for myself!” “I don’t know who I am anymore!” “Thank God! Only 11 more years and he’ll be out of the house!” “Only 17 years, 8 months, and 29 days and she’ll be out of college!” Blame a sinking economy or a rising selfishness and sense of entitlement in the culture at large, but regardless of where you put the blame, love and healthy relationships still get left out of this analysis. Frazer makes good points, if you don’t want the job of being a parent, don’t be a parent, and don’t decide that after you’ve become one. But, basing those choices on a quantifiable analysis of how much it’s going to cost you to love someone is an overwhelmingly sad way of looking at this life. Willoughby realized too late that he gained wealth at the cost of losing his heart and happiness. A lot of young men read Details, a lot of young men read this article, and if the family, and the next generation is the backbone of this country, it seems to me like that backbone is splintering into small fragments of selfish groups of pleasure-seekers who we all  may discover too late that the conclusion of their selfishness is much, woeful regret.

-<3 A. 

quote source: sense and sensibility, Austen, penguin books | “the no-baby boom,” Frazer, “details” magazine, april 2011

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