I was recently reading Ally Condie’s dystopic young adult novel Matched, in which the tightly controlled Society the protagonist lives in determines everything about her life, right down to who she’s to court and marry. This isn’t a new trope in dystopic YA—it can be easily traced back to Lois Lowry’s The Giver at least, probably goes back much farther, and appears in adult dystopic fiction as well.
As I read, I found myself thinking about how unlike in a traditional romance, where arranged marriages can at least sometimes turn into true love, in dystopic fiction arranged marriage is much more often used as a quick and easy sign that a society is broken—because if you’re being told to marry, the world you live in has to be pretty bad, right?
Yet historically, it’s never been that simple. Not all societies with arranged marriages have been dystopic, and not all arranged marriages have turned out badly. My grandmother’s grandparents didn’t meet until their wedding night, and while the Eastern European shtetl they came from had its problems, I’ve never heard my grandmother talk about her grandparents’ arranged marriage as one of them.
I suspect that overall, the degree of unhappiness—and happiness—within arranged marriages has varied hugely from one society to another, because not all arranged-marriage societies are alike. In some, the presence of arranged marriage is tied to some pretty deep repression, for women especially; in others, while there are inequities, there’s also more freedom. Saga-era Iceland is one society in which women had more power than one might expect in their arranged first marriages, including some power to initiate a divorce. (And by their second marriages, they also had the right to say no entirely).
I also suspect that for any arranged-marriage society, there’ve been some women for whom arranged marriage has worked out pretty well, and others for whom it was a pretty poor fit. The specifics might vary from one society to another, but it seems unlikely any society would develop arranged marriages if they didn’t work for someone. When I brought this subject up online recently, commenters talked about friends and acquaintances in arranged marriages in India and Japan who were genuinely happy, no dystopia involved, and they didn’t seem to feel the people they knew were particularly unusual.
I’m not suggesting my own society give up on love matches any time soon. For one thing, I’m pretty sure I’m one of those people for whom an arranged marriage who would be a very poor fit indeed. But I do think that using arranged marriage as a sort of shorthand for “this world is broken” is a bit simplistic. Arranged marriage doesn’t only apply to one sort of culture, it doesn’t tell the whole story of any of the cultures it does apply to, and it doesn’t tell the same story for every relationship within any of those cultures.
Letting characters resist an arrange marriage as a shorthand for “this character is sympathetic” seems simplistic, too. I’m thinking now of two non-dystopic historical novels in which the protagonists ultimately don’t resist: Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, in which the protagonist escapes an unpleasant arranged marriage by finding her way into a less unpleasant arranged marriage; and Frances Temple’s The Ramsay Scallop, in which a village priest takes pity on two young people for whom an arranged marriage is planned, and sends them on a pilgrimage together so they can have the time they need to get to know each other and, yes, fall in love.
Just as a happily-ever-after marriage is really only one possible positive ending for a romance, escaping an arranged marriage to find true love outside of it is only one possible happy ending to an arranged marriage story. It might be interesting read more dystopic explorations of not only why arranged marriages are flawed, but also of under what circumstances they might not be flawed, might help heal the world instead of only being a part of how it went wrong. Or perhaps more stories in which the arranged marriage is some complicated in-between thing, carrying elements of both happiness and unhappiness, suffering and healing.
Carrie Ryan’s dystopic The Forest of Hands and Teeth finds an almost-alternative ending, when the protagonist chooses an unsanctioned relationship over her arranged marriage, only to have both relationships turn out to be somewhat besides the point. Matched may yet find an alternative ending, too, since it’s the first book of a trilogy—or it may become one of the books that embodies the dystopic arranged-marriage trope, and which other books respond to instead. Either way, it’s a fictional conversation I look forward to reading.
Janni Lee Simner is author of three young adult fantasies—Thief Eyes, Bones of Faerie, and the just-released Faerie Winter —as well as of four books for younger readers and more than 30 short stories, including one in the forthcoming Welcome to Bordertown anthology.