Apr 12 2011 2:57pm

Arranged Marriages and Dystopian Fiction

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.

This article is part of Dystopia Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. Lsana
I've often played Devil's Advocate on this subject with my friends. Given the divorce rate in our society, perhaps a sign of the distopia ought to be the non-arranged marriage: imagine a world where young people are given no guidence at finding a life-partner and instead are left completely at the mercy of their hormone-adled emotions. It's like their families don't even care.

Of course, I don't want to give up "marriage for love" either, but that may just be because I was raised in a society that values the chain of attraction-love-romance-marriage. I could imagine another society that didn't have that chain of values that still wasn't miserable. Especially if part of what the arrangers were considering in what they did was the long-term happiness of the couple.
Janni Lee Simner
2. jsimner
India, which has a high rate of arranged marriage, also has a low divorce rate. Of course, marital happiness isn't the only thing the divorce rate indicates (and it can really indicate unhappiness as easily as happiness, depending on the causes behind it), but it's still one of the signs it isn't that simple.

And even if I'm right and I'd be unhappy in an arranged marriage society--for someone else it could be different.

It also depends on what other support systems one has in the society, and how primary marriage even is among them. So many factors.

It'd be fun to read a true "and the marriages aren't even arranged" dystopia. :-)
3. kathleen duey
I think of arranged marriage (as a story element) as shorthand for "Societal order trumps emotion, caste or class really matters, the needs/dreams of individuals are not prioritized over societal needs, elders control youths, cultural tradition far outweighs exploration and/or change."

Your last line in the comments was my response, too, Janni. I think I can imagine a dystopia where arranged marriage was not short hand for any of this. Maybe.
4. goodfellow_puck
Okay, I understand the part of the article that wants to see more exploration of a standard trope.

But are you really, REALLY trying to put arranged marriages in a positive light? Because it's sometimes okay when someone else decides who you're going to spend your whole life with? This is just the most bizarre thing I've read in a long time. I want to know which people here would gladly do an arranged marriage instead of choosing their spouse. Otherwise, it's pretty crazy to say, "Oh sure...that's got to be great for THOSE people, but not me of course." Wth.
Ursula L
5. Ursula
Lsana wrote: Given the divorce rate in our society...

That's another tricky social and literary shorthand, to equate the divorce rate with the health of marriage as an institution. And it's as problematic as equating arranged marriages with an unhealthy society.

I consider the health of marriage to be tied to the safety, health and happiness of the people in and arround the marriage - the married couple and any dependants. A marriage is healthy if it ends if and when it becomes unsafe, unhealthy or unhappy for anyone involved in a way that either can not easily be remidied or where the remidy would make someone unsafe, unhealthy or unhappy.

My parents divorced when I was in my early twenties, and both are happier for it. On the other hand, a friend of mine has parents (lets call them Voldemort and Belatrix) who have a dangerously abusive and neglectful relationship, and one that did and is doing great harm to their (now adult) children. Yet by most measures, Voldemort and Belatrix are counted as having a successful marriage, since they're still married, and my parents are counted as having a failed marriage, despite that both are happy and better off both for having been married and for having ended the marraige when the time was right.

So a healthy society, I'd think, would have a certain base divorce rate, at a level that indicates that bad marriages and relationships are ended, and people can move on to better situations. Too high a divorce rate might indicate social pressures on families (such as poverty) that add stress an damage relationships, while too low would indicate that people are having to stay in bad relationships for one reason or another.

What the exact ideal number is, I don't know.
6. Heelbiter
"The specifics might vary from one society to another, but it seems unlikely any society would develop arranged marriages if they didn’twork for someone."

Well, sure: they worked for men. Whether or not they also worked for any individual woman was incidental and not particularly relevant.
7. a1ay
That's another tricky social and literary shorthand, to equate the divorce rate with the health of marriage as an institution.

Indeed it is, not least because societies vary wildly in how difficult it is to get a divorce. It's not that long ago that getting a divorce in England involved getting a special Act of Parliament passed, just for you.

India may have a low divorce rate, but I'm betting its rate of spousal murder is a lot higher; and I don't think I'm going out on a limb in suggesting that a marriage where one participant actually kills the other should be classed as having failed in a pretty significant sense.

I'd disagree with Ursula that a low divorce rate might mean people are forced to stay in bad relationships; it might just mean that pre-marital relationships are common enough that, as it were, most of the snags have been ironed out by the time the couple gets married. If most divorces happen within three years of marriage, then a norm of five years' cohabitation before marriage might filter out a lot of bad partner choices before they were turned into bad spouse choices and subsequently into divorces.

As for who arranged marriages worked for: they may well have worked for the family as a whole, inasmuch as they allow a decent strategy on the family's property and alliances ("you will marry Bob, because his farmland adjoins ours/ his grandmother is influential at court").
8. Jazzlet
I agree it's lazy writing to use arranged marriages as short-hand for dystopia.

I also agree that arranged marriages are not automatically bad, it all depends (as always) on the conventions around it. I certainly made some bad choices in partners when I was young and while I have been with the same person for nearly thirty years I don't believe he is the only person I could have been happy with. A good friend to both of us pushed us together, so you could say that a matchmaker played a big role in getting our relationship started. If the whole family are genuinely trying to find compatible partners they may well do a better job than teenage lust.
9. Echoloc8
I find it quite interesting that marriages that end can be termed healthy, or having ended "when the time was right." That's like saying a person with a limb amputated for gangrene is healthy when in fact that person has been maimed; to save that person's life, perhaps, but nonetheless: maimed. Marriages can and sometimes indeed should be ended for the protection of one or both involved, for breakage of vows, etc., but calling that healthy or even good misses the point, in my opinion.

Most marriages still commence with words like "as long as we both shall live." Otherwise we're basically talking about "going really steady," right? Any such marriage that ends in anything other than death is by definition a failure. Should some marriages fail? Yes, but don't call that health. Call it embracing the lesser evil.
10. Sine
I've sat here reading this and the responses with my mouth open and not knowing what to say.
I am not on the "well, arranged marriages can work sometimes and authority figures know best." train at all. This is not an okay thing to be arguing for because there are a few success stories.
Leaving aside all issues of consent, economics and class, I'm a woman. I'm queer. If I was in a society where we had arranged marriages, do you really think the kindly matchmaker would set up a date with a nice boy and nice girl to see who I liked best?
It doesn't work that way.
Likewise, I'm certain we have heard of awful sexual atrocities done to "fix" lesbians and gay men. Arranged marriage-you can do that to your unwilling parter as many timese as you want, be praised and get a full set of kitchen accessories for your home too!

Also, it denies other forms of relationships such as poly or as mentioned, queer ones and even one as simple as not wanting to be married.
If you don't want to be married-surprise, you're getting married.
What if one doesn't want to have children? Most of the arranged marriage traditions I am aware of desire (male) children, resource alliance between families as well as upholding a societal norm.
Even if you didn't want children, you'd probably having them whether you wanted to or not and whether you were physically able or not.

There's also none of those pesky domestic violence issues-you are married and your matchmaker knows best, so a beating now and then just makes your love stronger, right?

As in any relationship, people can get lucky. However, there is so much problematic (dare I say patriarchal?) culture involved in it (even if the matchmaker is a woman) and so little room for basic freedoms for adults that this is not something that needs defending from the hordes of people who just don't understand how awesome it is.

No one should ever be forced to marry, reproduce or have sex against their will. There's way too much room for all of these to happen in this kind of a system--and while some may argue our system is flawed, at least two consenting adults can get married.
Oh. I guess not.

One could also argue there's a flaw in the whole marriage system itself, but hell no, arranged marriage is not the answer. I wonder how many people with children would want their children to have an arranged marriage?
Clare Miller
11. clarekrmiller
I think there's a pretty big difference between marriages that are arranged by the parents or a matchmaker (someone who's a part of the community), which tends to be the case in real-life arranged marriages--and marriages that are arranged by the government, which is the case in dystopian novels.

Government interference in personal life, especially at such intimate levels, is a clear indication of dystopia. Authors probably choose arranged marriage because there's so much opportunity for internal and interpersonal conflict there.
Janni Lee Simner
12. jsimner
I'm not trying to suggest arranged marriages are a good idea that we should adopt any time soon. What I'm trying to say is that I think they're complex, and should be explored as such, rather than always holding the same set of meanings; and also not that unhappiness hasn't existed within them, but that the degree of unhappiness has varied, both among individuals in a given society and from one society to another.

One thing I didn't deal with sufficiently was the whole issue of abuse and coercion, because I truly am not advocating either. There's a huge difference between a society that bundles a woman off to their never-met spouse and treats them like a prisoner in the home of that spouse, their free will abandoned on the day of marriage; and one where one's parents go to a matchmaker, introduce one to a match deemed suitable, and where there may even be some sort of right of refusal involved. Dystopic arranged marriages, like real world ones, can involve a high degree of coercion or a low one, and can offer ways out or not. I thought about these issues, and tried to touch on them, but perhaps should have given them more space.

One issue I didn't think about (until reading comments here and in email), is how different any arranged marriage society (whatever it's like otherwise) is for gay and straight couples. Historically, arranged marriages have also been heterosexual marriages--and that alone adds a deep layer of dystopia. One of the first questions that needs to be asked up front about any arranged marriage society (any society at all) that one is constructing is, what sorts of matches are deemed acceptable? I should have thought about this, and that I didn't was a bit of unexamined straight privilege that I apologize for--I was wrong, I'm sorry, and I'll do my best to be more thoughtful in the future.
Genevieve Williams
13. welltemperedwriter
I would like to suggest that everyone interested in this topic take a look at Stephanie Coontz's book Marriage: A History, because it really is germane and raises some interesting questions.

For example, the idea of marriage as a lifelong commitment based primarily on love is actually a very recent idea, and one that requires a sufficiently prosperous society that people can make (or dissolve) marriages for other than economic reasons. As it turns out, for most of its history, marriage has been an economic, not romantic, arrangement. Which wasn't to say that people didn't fall in love, sometimes even with the people they were married to--but arranged marriage has historically been much more common than people think. It also has not always taken as restrictive a form as a lot of people think.

If we're going to imagine a futuristic or fantasy world, I can easily imagine one where marriages are arranged by some third party but only at the desire and consent of those to be married. I could even imagine ones tailored to the sexualities of the people involved. There's an assumption that "arranged" automatically equates to "coerced", and that isn't necessarily the case--not to say that this doesn't happen (we can cite plenty of contemporary examples to the contrary, to be sure). It's been argued that arranged marriage is an example of repression, but what if the model used instead were something akin to matchmaking, with the parties involved able to say no to the arrangement at any point?

Which I guess means that what I'm really getting at is that using arranged marriage as a shorthand for dystopia is just that--a shorthand. Social context counts for a lot.

I also disagree with Echoloc8's assertion that a marriage that ends in anything other than the death of one or both parties is automatically a failure. That makes it sound as though the years devoted to the relationship were wasted because the marriage ended. Marriage is about the only voluntarily entered social relationship I can think of that has such weighty expectations placed upon it--and on such a personal, intimate, and irrational basis.

Coontz asserts that the romantic, sentimental basis of modern marriage is a direct cause of high divorce rates. I'm not sure I agree with her but I can see why she says it.
14. Pauline Alama
Thanks for taking a bold position. I remember when I taught a college English course, I had my mind blown open by a student from India who wrote an essay in response to the story "What we talk about when we talk about love" in which he said the characters would not have the problems they did if they had arranged marriages, like he expected to have some day. Wow. It had not crossed my mind before that someone would actually want an arranged marriage if they knew there could be an alternative. Another student -- an Indian woman -- responded to this argument by saying "That's because he's a guy," and talking about bride-burning, so it's more complicated than that. But you know, I think the life of world-building is in the complications, and as you say, too often arranged marriage (like human sacrifice) is just lazy shorthand for writers who want to depict an evil society. Thanks for helping shake us all out of our mental laziness!
15. Pauline Alama
BTW, I can list a couple of dystopias without arranged marriage right off the top of my head. Brave New World (there's no marriage, therefore there's no arranged marriage. Everyone belongs to everyone!). The Hunger Games (where the dystopic elements are economic deprivation & the "tributes" of young gladiators for the Hunger Games)

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