William was on his way to the train station when he remembered he hadn’t bought anything for his two sons. He always arrived home every weekend with a small gift for his boys, usually candy but he had given them sweets during the last four visits and wanted to give Paddy and Johnny a new treat. Toys were out. Williams’ wife, Isabel, was very particular about what kinds of toys the children played with fearing the wrong toy would influence their behavior later in life. Instead, William settled on fruit, a melon and a pineapple but immediately regretted his choice. He had a horrible suspicion that Isabel’s friends would eat the children’s fruit just as they usually ate the candy he brought home from London.
Boarding the train, William made his way to a first-class carriage and began to read from a wad of legal papers from his pocket to dull his growing dread of arriving home to Isabel. His wife had changed in recent years and William did not like who his wife had become, dubbing her “the new Isabel.” Yet he began to fantasize about seeing her at the station platform where she usually met him on his return home every Saturday. He delighted in envisioning her beauty and the many ways in which she would greet him, her attention solely his. Comparing her to his favorite rosebush as a child, beautiful and soft, William’s vision of his wife was soon overtaken by the dread he felt concerning “the new Isabel” and her artistic friends who were living in his home with his wife and children, rent-free.
Remembering a conversation they had had in their bedroom Isabel had chided him saying “Please don’t be so dreadfully stuffy and -tragic. You’re always saying or looking or hinting that I’ve changed. Just because I’ve got to know really congenial people, and go about more, and am frightfully keen on- on everything, you behave as though I’d…killed our love or something. It’s so awfully absurd” (94). William had not know how to reply without being insulting and he agreed that a change had been necessary when he chose to relocate his family to the countryside, away from crowded London. The little home they had shared in London was too small, especially for the boys, and although Isabel complained about the servants in the new home, it was larger and she was able to endlessly entertain her friends who utilized the large property at their leisure.
William had loved the little home in London, had taken pride in it. He had no idea Isabel had been unhappy there until Moira Morrison, a friend, had taken Isabel under her wing, calling her “little Titania” and had taken Isabel to Paris. William reflects that the trip to France had been the catalyst of Isabel’s transformation.
Only one station away, William prepared to disembark all the while remembering the many holidays or vacations they had when the boys were babies and how Isabel would wear her hair in a braid and they slept with their feet intertwined. William knew Isabel would scorn his sentimentality but he smiled at the memory nonetheless.
At the station, Isabel was waiting for him, set apart from the rest of the crowd. She called out to him, just as he had imagined she would and tucked her arm into his and walked with him to a waiting taxi. William thought she looked beautiful and told her so but she brushed off his compliment and said her friends were waiting for them in the taxi. William tried not to show his disappointment.
Moira Morrison, Bill Hunt, and Dennis Green were sprawled out in the taxi waiting for Bobby Kane to return from the sweet shop with ice cream and candy. William was agitated when Isabel took the pineapple from him, drawing attention to his gift to the children. Moira made a show of smelling the pineapple while Bill and Dennis exchanged witty comments about women and fruit. Bobby Kane soon emerged from the sweet shop, his arms loaded down with ice cream packets and nougat. The shopkeeper appeared and Bobby Kane said he had forgotten to pay. Isabel casually gave the shopkeeper money and then got into the taxi.
Once home, Isabel and her friends went to bathe in a pond near the house while William went to spend time with his sons who were unfortunately sleeping and missed their father’s Saturday visit altogether. William went down to the sitting room and was agitated to see Isabel’s new friends had replaced his son’s toys with poetry and an odd painting. Disgusted with his circumstances, William listened to his houseguests’ conversation as they made their way into the house after their swim. Each viewed William as an intruder upon their time, and felt that they could not behave in the way that they wanted to with him around. Isabel shushed them and said her husband would only be there for one day and they would just have to be nice to him.
Coming into the house they realized that William had probably heard what they said and Bobby Kane tried to rectify this by comically dancing on the lawn with his towel and telling William they were late because they had all gone out to a pub.
Isabel led her friends inside and they sat with William to eat supper and began the first course of sardines. Bill Hunt tried to engage William in conversation but was distracted by Moira’s discussion of the color of legs underwater. William kept track of the enormous amount of food and drink Isabel’s friends consumed and of her cheerful demeanor at providing them sustenance.
The next day William was waiting for his taxi to take him to the train station and then back to London, when Isabel came out to say goodbye. She lifted his suitcase, intending to carry it down the lane to the taxi. It was much heavier than usual. As the taxi approached them Isabel apologized for not spending more time with him during his visit and that he had missed seeing the boys. She wished him well, kissed his cheek, and returned to the house.
After William had boarded his train and had taken his seat in first-class, he began to compose a letter to Isabel in his mind.
Isabel and her friends were lounging on the lawn when the post arrived. As her friends talked amongst themselves, Isabel’s thoughts were on the salmon they had eaten for dinner the night before. She could not understand where all of the salmon had gone, thinking they should have had leftovers for today.
The post contained one letter, from William to Isabel. She was not pleased to see the letter and did not react when one of her friends said William was sending her a gentle reminder of her wedding vows. The letter began “My darling, precious Isabel” (99). It was a love letter! Isabel began to laugh, forcibly at first because she was confused by the letter’s meaning and embarrassed by it’s implications. Turning it into a joke, she read the long letter aloud to the utter delight of her friends who joyfully ridiculed William for his sentimentality and casually talked of divorce. The line “God forbid, my darling, that I should be a drag on your happiness” (100) lingered in the air and Isabel, to the surprise of her friends, took the letter and ran into the house.
In her bedroom, Isabel cried in anger at herself for having read aloud William’s letter. She saw the faces of her so-called friends laughing and ridiculing her dear husband and saw how vain and shallow she had become. She knew she should write back to William immediately, to reassure him of her own affections for him but her friends were calling to her, asking her to go swimming with them.
Isabel knew she had a decision to make and wanted to stay and write to William but her friends called up to her “Titania!” She thought she would write to William some other time and left the bedroom laughing the laugh of “the new Isabel.”
"Marriage a la Mode" by Katherine Mansfield was first published in the literary magazine Sphere on December 31, 1921 and later incorporated into The Garden Party and Other Stories. In the text, Mansfield examines the theme of marriage and the ever-changing role of gender in the home in the early twentieth century. Mansfield examines the concept of marriage by switching between the male and female perspective of the main characters, William and Isabel. As the title suggests, the often-complicated dynamics of their relationship are strongly influenced by a fluctuating and ever changing world. Utilizing the third person narrative Mansfield perfects her use of several literary devices preferred by the modernists especially the internal monologue to enhance the realism of William and the Isabel’s deteriorating relationship.
As a character William is contradictory. He wants to be more involved in family-life and yet he sent his wife and children to the countryside while he continued to work in the city. William visits them once a week although he would rather be absorbed in his work than his family but he finds his work comforting and familiar and his home life, less so. William fondly recalls the past, believing the life he shared with Isabel in their small home in London and the early years of their marriage to be the happiest of times. He only became aware of his wife’s discontent after she returned from Paris with Moira Morrison. Her adventures in France were so transformative that when Isabel returned William found her much changed and unfamiliar with the “new Isabel.” Poor Williams seems somewhat naïve when he accepts Isabel’s request for “more space” and buys her a house in the country. In contemporary culture separation before divorce is commonplace but in the 1920s both were unusual. Although William may not fully understand the implication of moving his family so far away, he allows the move to take place and dutifully commutes from London to his home in the country one day a week. He continues to support his wife and family without noted complaint until the situation spirals out of control.
Whatever his sentiment, Williams obviously did not know his wife as well as he thought he did and that realization scares him. He does not know which Isabel he will see during his visits or how she will react to him. This uncertainty magnifies William’s already increasing dread at having to go home at all. Isabel’s dismissive manner, her friends’ rude remarks about William’s presence and the changes made to his home without his knowledge, including the noted absence of his children, all conspire to drive William away. Although the text is written primarily from the protagonist’s perspective, the objective narrative coupled with the brief interludes into William’s mindset paint a startlingly visual picture of a marriage on the verge of ruin. Yet neither spouse attempts to communicate with the other about their marital difficulties until William’s letter arrives. Perhaps he was afraid to confront Isabel, knowing she preferred her new life with her friends than her old life in London with him. Regardless, William’s intentions become clear when Isabel tries to carry his heavy suitcase. He has packed his personal belongings, intending to stay in London and his wife, who he still loves despite her disrespectful attitude toward him, does not understand its implications. William’s letter is kind and sentimental but firm. He feels he cannot make his wife happy and is stepping aside. Perhaps if William had a more forceful personality, he would have expressed his concerns to Isabel much sooner and avoided their current state of affairs but his weakness for pleasing his wife and making her happy eventually became his undoing.
Isabel, in comparison to her husband, is a woman who knows her mind. After her trip to Paris, “shorthand for an avant-garde taste and sexual adventure” (Sage, 157), Isabel is discontent with her life in London and with William. She accuses him of being sentimental and buried in the past. She is interested only in the here and now and views William as a stumbling block to her quest for enlightenment. Her move to the country allows her both freedom from her marriage and social conventions. In her new home Isabel is able to do as she pleases, disregarding her responsibilities as a wife and mother, exchanging her domestic duties for frivolity with her new friends. Although Mansfield thwarted conventionalism in her own life she seems to take particular issue with women who dislike or abandon the responsibilities of motherhood. Note the similarities between Isabel’s characteristics and that of Linda Burnell of "At the Bay." Both characters resent the burden of society’s expectations upon women to be good wives and mothers. Unlike Linda Burnell, Isabel does not have anyone else to take care of her children, except for servants, and seems unconcerned for their overall wellbeing outside of monitoring what toys they play with. She does not encourage them to wake up to see their father, she removes their toys from their play-area and allows her friends to take over the space with their poetry and “art.” The children do not even make an appearance in the text, the most telling proof of their unimportance in Isabel’s new life. She is so caught up in her friends, in appeasing their every whim that she has chosen to neglect her family, especially William.
Isabel’s intentions to better herself are admirable especially for the early twentieth century but her complete disregard for her family belittles her as a person. Her happiness begins to crack as her insecurities are revealed when she realizes the financial toll her so-called friends have placed upon her household and the emotional price she has paid in driving William out of her life. Like her namesake “Titania,” Isabel is strong-willed and playful. Her anger at William’s intrusion on her new life stems from the guilt she feels at having abandoned him. Despite her strength of character, Isabel is not able to resist the call of her friends and their influence. Her transformation into the “new Isabel” is complete when she leaves William’s letter unanswered.
William and Isabel’s views on marriage are found primarily in what remains unsaid between the couple. The physical and emotional distance between William and Isabel at present compared to the intimacy they shared as newlyweds is representational of the gradual decline of their commitment to one another. Before Moira Morrison’s influence changed their course of their marriage, Isabel was obviously discontent with the state of her marriage and William blind to her unhappiness. Both characters seem to view marriage as an obligation, although William does seem to truly love his wife, he does not necessarily understand her as a person. Isabel’s clear disregard for William and her preference for the company of others is a clear indication that she is distancing herself from her husband, probably to protect herself from the prospect of being tempted to return to her old life. She does not allow William to get too close and yet she still cares for him, crying over the state of his letter and her own foolishness at having cast him aside. Their marriage is one of compromise and sacrifice and there is no indication in his letter that William will continue to fund Isabel and her friends’ vagabond lifestyle. William has accepted that their life together has reached a crossroads; his letter is a tipping point toward final separation. If only they had learned to understand one another’s needs and roles within their marriage.
Interestingly William’s sentimentally and Isabel’s hard won freedom are juxtapositions of the traditional gender roles of the early twentieth century. William is sensitive by nature, quietly questioning Isabel’s behavior and choices but never undermining her or demeaning her need for self-expression. He does not dominate their relationship, allowing her full reign as to where their lives are headed as a couple. Instead he takes a noncommittal backseat to her philosophical wanderings, funds her lifestyle, and turns a mostly blind eye to her freeloading friends, hoping that Isabel will return to him if he does not begrudge her freedom. Unfortunately, William’s leniency is his marriage’s undoing. Isabel in comparison feels unsympathetic toward her husband’s needs and separates herself emotionally from her family, going against familial stereotypes. By doing so she essentially threatens the very lifestyle she has come to depend on. By alienating William, she is in danger of cutting off her only source of income and how can she provide endless entertainment and a life of leisure for her friends without William’s support. Unfortunately for Isabel, the freedoms she dreams of come with a price.
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The prevailing and dominant theme of the play is manifested in the opening lines: “Why should a foolish marriage vow, Which long ago was made, Oblige us to each other now, When passion is decayed?” Perhaps Dryden was being a bit prescient and peeking into the future of celebrity marriage when he decided to have the old married couple at the center of his plot who have grown wearing of each other now that the passion has been extinguished—after almost a full two years of marriage. The comparison to shallow Hollywood relationships is appropriate: Dryden was hardly challenging the ancient Greeks or the depths of Renaissance revenge tragedy here. A comedy of manners that is as reflective of the surface penetration of its two main character, this theme drives the narrative to a series of comedic complications and romantic misadventures.
More than just a mere comedy of manners, Marriage-a-la-Mode is a Restoration comedy of manners. Which means that another theme to be highlighted quite strongly is just how different men and women are from each other. One of foundation of Restoration comedy—both good and bad—is constructed on proving that the all efforts to transform love into yet another thing produced by the rational human mind was pure folly. The modern audiences were engage in a frantic bid to prove that love followed certain rules and conventions of logic and that all those crazy romantic comedies of Shakespeare and his ilk were merely the inventions of a fantastical mind. Hence, Restoration comedies generally do away with the need for a semi-magical forest where nature can take its true course in a way that the restrictions and conventions of society do not allow. Of course, Marriage-a-la-Mode was written before the rules of the genre were set in stone and its splitting of its narrative into non-related plot threads does at least thematically pay a nod to that tradition with its story of the Sicilian throne usurping.
The Restoration as a period was about the restoration of the monarchy to the throne. Dryden composed Marriage-a-la-Mode just a dozen years after the restoration of the exiled King Charles II back on the throne. The plot line involving a usurper of the head of state in Sicily facing an unexpected return of the rightful prince covers a theme directly related to historical circumstances that absolutely every member of his audience would immediately recognize. Such a recognition is a bit tougher for modern audiences, of course, but this lack of recognition in no way undoes the significance of the theme of power and authority stolen by the usurper either through violence or the unwise mechanics of a political system invested with legality and legitimacy.