Elizabeth Gilbert is once again a married woman, and she has written a rather lengthy memoir in order to explain why. While in ordinary circumstances such an explanation would be quite unnecessary, in the case of Elizabeth Gilbert some explanation seems to be required.
Gilbert, you may recall, is author of the best-selling memoir of leaving marriage, Eat, Pray, Love. That book was a blockbuster, and Gilbert has been a fixture on shows such as Oprah, telling and retelling her story of finding true love after leaving marriage behind.
Now, in Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Gilbert explains her unexpected (and unconventional) road to marriage. By all accounts, Committed is likely to join Eat, Pray, Love atop the best-seller lists. In any event, the book reveals the vast redefinition of marriage taking place within Western cultures, right before our eyes.
Gilbert is an experienced writer, but until the publication of Eat, Pray, Love, she had been mainly known for writing articles for male-focused magazines. No more. Her two autobiographical books are clearly in the “chick lit” category, and women are devouring her writing. A movie version of Eat, Pray, Love is in the works, with Julia Roberts cast as Elizabeth Gilbert.
What makes these books so important for Christian consideration is the view of love and marriage the two books present with such unabashed passion. Over the last century, love and marriage have been driven apart in the modern secular mind. Marriage has been presented as a domestic prison camp for women, even as the divorce revolution has meant that every marriage is now, legally speaking, a tentative contract.
We are now in the age of personal expression and radical individualism. As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead has suggested, the invention of “expressive marriage,” by which the individuals made a statement of their self-expression through marriage, has now been joined by “expressive divorce,” in which the formerly-married explain that the divorce was how they liberated themselves to even more truthful self-expression.
Few have told their story of self-expression so successfully — or so candidly — as Elizabeth Gilbert. Eat, Pray, Love is nothing less than a complete rejection of the Christian conception of marriage. The applause she has gained from the public should tell us something.
In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert told of coming to the conclusion that she no longer wanted to be married to the man she had married at age 25, after living with him since age 23. She wrote:
My husband and I — who had been together for eight years, married for six — had built our entire life around the common expectation that, after passing the doddering old age of 30, I would want to settle down and have children. By then, we mutually anticipated, I would have grown weary of traveling and would be happy to live in a big, busy household full of children and homemade quilts, with a garden in the backyard and a cozy stew bubbling on the stovetop.
But Gilbert did not want to have a baby and, as she realized, she didn’t want to be married any more, either. So, having expressed herself by getting married, she then expressed herself by getting divorced. After her acrimonious divorce was final, she set off around the world once again — this time in search of love.
Gilbert describes herself as “culturally, though not theologically” Christian, but she rejects outright the limitation of sex to marriage. “I got started early in life with the pursuit of sexual or romantic pleasure,” she writes. “I barely had an adolescence before I had my first boyfriend, and I have consistently had a boy or a man (or sometimes both) in my life ever since I was fifteen years old. That was — oh, let’s see — about nineteen years ago, now. That’s almost two solid decades I have been entwined in some kind of drama with some kind of guy. Each overlapping the next, with never so much as a week’s breather in between.”
Eat, Pray, Love is a memoir conjoined to a travel narrative. In the book, Gilbert traces her journey through Italy, Indonesia, and India. She is a skilled writer, and her travel writing is compelling. Nevertheless, it is Gilbert, and not the geography, that is front and center. By the end of Eat, Pray, Love, she has found love once again, in an affair with a Brazilian man known to her readers as Filipe. They decide to establish a live-in relationship, but are even more determined never to marry. Gilbert became a symbol of love without the constraints of marriage — a heroine to millions of women who watch Oprah and devoured her books.
Then she got married. As she explains in her new book, Committed, she married Filipe because it was the only way he could stay in the United States. She writes of being “sentenced” to marry by the Department of Homeland Security in order to continue her relationship with Filipe.
In Committed, Gilbert explains all this to the very readers to whom she had announced her determination never to marry again. She writes of “my efforts to make peace with the complicated institution of marriage,” once again in the context of a travel narrative.
Gilbert’s new view of marriage — the concept of marriage with which she has now “made peace” — is one that is fully in keeping with her affirmation of “me-ness.” This comes out in the context of an encounter she has with Hmong women, who do not seem to connect at all with her individualism. Writing of herself and her American friends, she says: “Whatever our religion, whatever our economic class, we all at least somewhat embraced the same dogma, which I would describe as being very historically recent and very definitely Western and which can effectively be summed up as: ‘You matter.’”
In her account, Gilbert inserts a lengthy and eccentric review of marriage in Western culture. Her angle is predictable — pointing to the liberation of marriage from traditional views to modern expressive views. She also understands what this transformation means: Marriage becomes tentative, conditional, provisional, and fragile.
Looking to the older women of her family, Gilbert understands that their commitment to marriage was very different. “This was their guiding verb and their defining principle in life: They gave.” This is not what Gilbert sees as her own principle.
Even as she is now (sentenced to be?) married, Elizabeth Gilbert has made her peace with marriage by affirming a very modern, very individualistic, very radical form of marriage — one that is the inevitable product of the replacement of obligation with liberation.
Sigmund Freud rejected the idea that he would write an autobiography or memoir as “quite an impossible suggestion.” To tell his own personal story would require “so much indiscretion.” Yet, as Daniel Mendelsohn recently noted, bookstores are now filled with a “tsunami” of memoirs, many of them extremely indiscrete.
Elizabeth Gilbert has written what will probably be another blockbuster, but discerning readers will soon discover that the conception of marriage with which she has made peace is revolutionary, and amounts to a deliberate rejection of marriage as a life-long covenant that implies children and generational obligations. The value of reading her memoirs is this — she shows where the revolution inevitably leads. The applause she is given by the public tells us how far the revolution has already progressed.
In the end, there just isn’t very much commitment in Committed.
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