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The sturdy figure of the "worker," the artisan, in clean overalls, with a bag of tools and lunch-box, is always accompanied by the ghostly figure of his wife.
Isn't that the ultimate homeland security--standing up and defending marriage?
--Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), "Chairman"
American literature is replete with examples of women trying to negotiate alternative relationships to the marriage contract. From Hannah Foster's The Coquette (1797), in which Eliza Wharton pays with her life for imagining that she and her male friends can enter into contracts other than the marriage contract, to Hester Prynne's imagining of a new sexual contract in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) ("As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down" ), to Isabel Archer's tragic attempt to "marry herself" in James's The Portrait of a Lady (1881), American fiction has repeatedly exposed the paradox at the heart of the "genderless" contract. In narratives by Harriet Jacobs, Hannah Crafts, Kate Chopin, William Dean Howells, and Edith Wharton, the depiction of woman's paradoxical relationship to contract ideology urges us, indeed, to reconsider the crucial though often overlooked opposition between contracts and gifts. In this paper, I will argue that women's equivocal relationship to contract--a relationship sustained by what I call the afterlife of coverture--has everything to do with a pervasive desire to keep contract and gift apart. To that end, I will turn to a mid-twentieth-century novella, Carson McCullers's "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe," which mourns for an experience of incalculable giving even as it confronts questions of sexual and explicitly marital violence with unusual force and economy.
"The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" tells the story of a "queer marriage" that takes place nowhere and in an isolated Southern mill town in the middle of the twentieth century. It is the marriage of Miss Amelia Evans to Marvin Macy, and it was "unlike any other marriage ever contracted [...], it was a strange and dangerous marriage lasting only for ten days, [it] left the whole town wondering and shocked" (4-5). McCullers's story of the marriage contract's "sorry bargain" transforms the ballad's conventional preoccupation with coherent social ordering (the ballad is a collective form) (1) into something of a feminist critique of marriage. Illuminating the paradox of a patriarchal logic whereby the woman appears as both the subject and object of contractual exchange, McCullers's "strange and dangerous marriage" also reminds us that marriage marks the site of a founding violence (marriage, as we are regularly reminded, is essential to the state--"the last barrier of civilization"). (2)
But as a ballad, McCullers's novella also demonstrates a preoccupation with tragic love, a preoccupation that risks frustrating straightforward feminist critiques of the institution of marriage. "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe"'s tragic lover does not simply suffer from the absence of full politico-legal enfranchisement. She also suffers from the warring knot of desires that circulate around the ambiguities of contract and gift. Outside of an economy of exchange, even as it might be said to haunt its origins, the gift signals an originary loss at work in any system of circulation. Refusing all reciprocity, the gift also maintains an uneasy relationship with the violence that founds a new legal or contractual order. Miss Amelia's excruciatingly ambivalent relationship to the gifts of love, as I hope to show, rehearses the perversity and the violence of contract ideology even as it effects her eventual isolation. Hence, to contemplate the relationship between gifts and contracts--is the gift a "primitive" form of the contract, or is the gift the sublime and elusive other of contract, that which contract can only ever defile?--is simultaneously to trace "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe"'s complex transformation of a store into a cafe and a cafe into a tomb. Is it Miss Amelia's furious resistance to the gift or her peculiar understanding of its impossibility that explains her displacement from the center of exchange to the collapsing interior of a ghost house? (3) Indeed, it is only by considering the novella's fascination with gifts (gifts that demand; gifts that poison; gifts of lack) that we can begin to appreciate Miss Amelia's enigmatic relationship to marriage and to the circuit of exchange. The marriage contract, as McCullers's novella continues to inform us sixty years after its publication, marks the site of an engagement with contracts and gifts, violence and the ethical, that persistently refuses to come out even. (4)
Contract and Violence
The marriage contract's exemplary political status has long been familiar to American historians. "As an intentional and harmonious juncture of individuals for mutual protection, economic advantage, and common interest," writes historian Nancy Cott, "the marriage bond resembled the social contract that produced government. As a freely chosen structure of authority and obligation it was an irresistible model" (16). Historians of marriage in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were also quick to reinforce the relationship between contract and marriage. George Eliot Howard, author of A History of Matrimonial Institutions (1904), triumphantly asserts, "[W]hether regarded historically or biologically, monogamy and self-betrothal [i.e., contract] appear simply as two aspects of the same institution; they are connected by a psychic bond, and together they constitute the highest type of marriage and the family" (222-23).
At the same time, however, nineteenth-century American law articulated uncertainty about the extent to which marriage should conform to the general privileging of contractual relations established between free individuals unbeholden to public notions of equity. Hence, "the varied but determined resistance to voluntary divorce," notes Michael Grossberg, "and [the] repeated assertions of state nuptial responsibility [that] acted as constant reminders of the limits of matrimonial contractualism. [...] Marriage remained simply too important," Grossberg continues, "to be left entirely to the invisible hand of the nuptial marketplace" (21). Finally, Linda Kerber has shown most persuasively that despite being well aware of the discourse on equal rights for women, the American founders chose to maintain English law concerning marriage, thus extending coverture into the democratic era. Not until 1992, Kerber points out, with the Supreme Court's decision in Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania v. Casey, did the Court specifically announce that it would no longer recognize the power of husbands over the bodies of their wives. "That is the moment," writes Kerber, "when coverture, as a living legal principle, died" (307). In other words, something analogous to a "conjugal kingdom" continued to function within the democratic state long after the American Revolution. The 1907 Expatriation Act is only one of the examples we might look at in this respect. Under this legislation, American women were compelled to follow the citizenship of their husbands: an American man could make his foreign-born wife into a citizen, but an American woman would lose her citizenship upon marrying a foreign man. (5) Marriage, then, could be said to maintain, like sedimentary layers, relationships to various forms of political organization: the hierarchizations of feudalism, as well as the social contractualism of the Enlightenment and the aggressive individualism of market contractualism.
But marriage is also, as Carole Pateman has shown, an exemplary instance of the specifically fraternal violence of contract ideology. In The Sexual Contract, Pateman returns to the foundational myth of modern civil society (the story of an original contract establishing "free social relations" between "individuals") and asks what the "freedom" of the original contract is free from and what it has power or right over. The answer is clear. Despite the rhetoric of gender-neutral individuality associated with the Enlightenment break from patriarchal feudalism, the individual of democratic contract ideology is a man: post-feudal political power is fraternally democratic. (6) "Odd things happen to women," Pateman concludes, "when the assumption is made that the only alternative to the patriarchal construction of sexual difference is the ostensibly sex-neutral 'individual'" (187).
In Pateman's version of things, the individual of contract theory is a man with impermeable boundaries, a man who can own things, a man who is never compromised by his relationship to another. At the same time, what Pateman calls "fraternal patriarchy" has insisted that the sexual contract and the social contract are separable entities and that the sexual contract merely concerns the private sphere. Hence, contracts function paradoxically when it comes to women. And we see this clearly in the case of marriage, since it is here that civil society's insistence on the separation of private and public spheres comes up against contract theory's invocation of "free social relations" between individuals. The marriage contract requires that women, those creatures classically considered incapable of full participation in the public sphere, also be entirely competent individuals who can enter into contractual …