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A Comparison of Ann Beatie's "Janus" and Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."
In a hyperaccelerated culture like ours, marriage can go through many changes in a short period of time. Before the 1960s marriage was based strictly on the husbands egocentricities amid the wives submissiveness.
By the begginning of the 1980s, however, the "sexual revolution" was coming to a close and the "feminist movement" was in full swing; marital relationships were changing.
After the death of the "nuclear family," marriage evolved into a selfish institution that centered on the "individual" and not the "male-dominated couple."
This reached a peak in the early 1980s with the birth of the Yuppie, and the acceptance of self gratification.
Both "Janus" by Ann Beatie, written in 1985, and "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" by Raymond Carver, written in 1981, center on how the self-gratifying nature of the 1980s led to marriages where the "individual" stood above the "male-dominated couple."
In Beattie's "Janus," the narrator uses the bowl as a symbol to describe the relationship between her, and her husband.
She opens the story by saying that the bowl "was not at all astentatious, or even so noticeable that anyone would suspect that it had been put into place deliberately."
The narrator is describing how she uses the bowl to help her sell houses, by placing the bowl in deliberate areas to trick potential buyers into buying the house.
In her statement, the narrator is also alluding that she has deliberately placed herself within a marriage for her own personal gain.
She then goes on to say that the bowl, "was large enough so that it didn't seem fragile, or particularly vulnerable."
Here she is telling the reader that she rises herself above the loneliness of her marriage. She held herself above the fragility of the classical wife role. She does not allow her husband to place his keys next to the bowl, and tells the reader that the bowl was meant to "stay empty."
The narrator is happy to remain empty, she enjoys the hollowness of noncommitment that is apparent in her marriage. This is not a lone role played by the narrator, her husband also plays his part.
He does not wish to be a part of his wife's life. He comments about how he enjoys her "aesthetic sense" and her ability to "function in the real world."
He does not concern himself with her life, because she can function independently.
Carver, in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," describes marriage in the 1980s.
The story opens with; "There were Mel and me and his second wife, Teresa-Terri, we called her and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque then. But we were all from somewhere else."
Carver stressed the point that the couples were actually separated into individuals, not only by introducing them as individuals, but also stressing to the reader how each of the characters was from "somewhere else."
Carver then goes on to use an accepted comment on marriage.
"You Guys,' Terri said. 'Stop that now. You are making me sick. You're still on the honeymoon, for God's sake. You're still gaga, for crying out loud. Just wait. How long have you been together now? How long has it been? A year? Longer than a year?"
Terri says this after she notices Nick kissing Laura's hand. What makes Terri say this? What makes anyone say these lines? What Terri is saying is that after time the couple will split and become individuals and go their separate roads. This does not mean divorce, but falling into the modern marriage routine.
Beattie in "janus" shows us the relationship between the narrator and her husband by explaining how they simply led two separate lives.
"He always urged her to buy things she liked. In recent years, both of them had acquired many things to make up for all the lean years when they were graduate students, but now that they had been comfortable for quite a while, the pleasure of new possessions dwinsled...He had no more interest in the bowl than she had in his new Leica."
The narrator comments on modern marriage, by questioning her own relationship with her husband. She ponders on how marriage worked during the days of the "male-dominated couple."
"Just think of how people lived together and loved each other...But was that always so clear, always a relationship?"
She compares her husband to a material item when her lover tells her she should buy the bowl and she explains that she "didn't need anymore things..."
This statement included her lover, who was becoming too close, threatening her own private self-gratifying world.
The character of Mel in Carver's story begins by describing how he wishes he was a knight.
At first we get the idea that Mel wanted to be a knight for romantic reasons but then he explains that one "...was pretty safe wearing all that armor...but I guess even knights were vessels to someone. Isn't that the way it worked? But then everyone is always a vessel to soneone. Isn't that right Terri?...that they had that suit of armor, you know, and they couldn't get hurt easy..."
To Mel, who had strong beliefs in self-gratification, having a suit of armor would protect him against the emotional battles that exist in relationships so he could remain detached and independent.
Mel then goes on to narrate a story about an old couple that gets into an auto accident. The couple, in severe condition, seemed to go on, until they were unable to view each other. then they passsed on from "a broken heart."
This story shows the contrast between the relationship of the old couple and the relationship of Mel and Terri. Mel first tell Nick and Laura that if either he or Terri were to pass on they would continue to survive without each other. Then, when Mel tells the story of the old couple, he stresses how he feels that their reliance upon one another is absurd.
"I'm telling you, the man's heart was breaking because he couldn't turn his goddam head and see his goddam wife...I mean, it was killing the old fart just because he couldn't look a the fucking woman."
Beattie ends "Janus" by once again using the symbol of the bowl.
"In it's way, it was perfect: the world cut in half, deep, and smoothly empty. Near the rim, even in dim light, the eye moved toward one small flash of blue, a vanishing point on the horizon."
The narrator calls the bowl perfect because it is in halves, like the two separate halves of her marriage, he and her husband. She also believes it is perfect because it is "smoothly empty."
"Empty" refers to her life, and "smoothly" refers to how smooth her life is when empty and that she does not want to complicate her life by making commitments to others.
Carver ends his story by having Nick explain the tension in the room before the couples leave, "I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the numan noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark."
Everyone's heart beat separatly, their heart beats were not coupled or in unison.
Marriage, by the 1980s had evolved into an institution of "individuals" and not "male-dominated couples." Both Beattie in her story "Janus" and Carver in his short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" show the reader how marriage had become a selfish endeavor.
It will be interesting to see where the institution of marriage will be in another decade of hyperaccelerated cultural changes.
Maybe marriages will be able to bond two individuals into a relationship of equality.