Do any fairy stories end; and she lived happily ever after? I think not. Certainly nothing I read as a child ended so gloriously. It is always they, hand in hand, who will be happy in the sky-blue forever. And it is presumed that we, yes all of us, want exactly that for our very own.
The cultural dogma of life as a trajectory of hope, impediment, and finally happiness, requires that we find love, or perhaps more accurately, we must be found by love; we must love and be loved in return. This fable, ‘love’s plot’ is extensively critiqued by Lauren Berlant who argues that female identity as proffered by popular culture is in thrall to the idea that love will rescue us and transform each of us into a better self. Such is the desire to love and be loved, that the compromises women will make in their attempt to belong to this story can, according to Berlant, amount to nothing short of ‘self-amputation’. What I believe we risk losing is our singularity which becomes sublimated into the social belongingof coupledom.
Coupledom, the intimacy of two, is something that we are culturally coded to aspire to. Fairy tales, and other such romantic cant precondition us to accept the teleological tow towards the happy ending as both desirable and normal, and conversely, its rejection as abnormal. Coupledom and its promissory happy-ever-after makes us, as Berlant argues, safe; ‘safe from the world, in the world, for the world’, no longer a ‘threat to the general happiness’.
I am not coupled. However satisfied I may privately be with my choices in life, with the way things have turned out, I find that there are times when being un-coupled is to be disadvantaged; practically, socially, and perhaps emotionally, and furthermore, and most importantly it is publicly perceived as disadvantaged. I am uncomfortable that my choice to be single should be categorised by others as failure. As a singleton, I stand out from my family and the enduring stability of their marriages and other relationships. My grandparents, for example, an odd couple if ever there was one, often at odds, but a set, like salt and pepper. They were unimaginable, one without the other, and they were together for over fifty years. My parents and my brothers are the marrying kind, the kind that stays married, sticking together through thick and thin. My family, like swans, tend to mate for life.
As a singleton, standing out, I find that I am frequently required to give an account of myself and of my obstinate singleness. I am obliged to explain myself in a way that I would never have to explain my choice to be coupled. I must account for how I turned out not to be a swan after all.
But what are the potential benefits of being single? Besides the freedom, the inner resilience, and the lack of compromise, there is a certain exhilaration in being one instead of half of two. That feeling is perfectly captured in a short story, ‘A Family Man’, by the writer V S Pritchett. He says of his female protagonist, Berenice that ‘among the married she felt her singularity’. This rich and complex use of the term singularity gives layers of meaning beginning with the prosaic dictionary definition; of quality, state, or fact of being singular as a unique yet substitutable being. We might furthermore ascribe to Pritchett’s use of singularity the properties of eccentricity; an exceptional or unusual trait; a peculiarity. Singularity denotes an awkwardness that is not framed as admirable exactly. It is redolent of square pegs in round holes and sticking out like a sore thumb, with an assumption that what it sticks out from is a harmonious norm, complete in itself; congruent, regular, faultless.
In the context of Pritchett’s narrative, singularity also brings into play the sense of being single, of being (as yet) unmarried, as Berenice’s single singularity is made to
stand in direct opposition to the married status of her friends and acquaintances. The two conditions of being unmarried and being peculiar are entwined in ‘singularity’, as if being single were a caprice or perversion. As one who stands apart from the norm of coupledom, Berenice is an oddity. Her friends are entertained by her but feel it would be better all-round if she settled down. They seek to normalise her by enfolding her in love’s plot. Her friend, Mrs Brewster says;
‘She’s getting old. She ought to get married, . . . I wish she wouldn’t swoosh her hair around like that. She’d look better if she put it up.’
The single woman is considered to be a threat, and that is because her perverse and wilful singleness has the capacity to unsettle the social equilibrium. She is a symbol of failure; either failure to marry, or failure to remain married, and obviously a threat to the stability of other marriages, and by extension to the general aspirational happiness implicit in the promise of happy-ever-after.
But Berenice doesn’t want to settle down, she doesn’t want to be enfolded in love’s plot. She feels resentment towards ‘the slapdash egotism of young men trying to bring her peculiarity to an end.’ She is defensive of her peculiarity and holds herself apart from the married. They interest her, she spends her time with them, and she likes to listen to their endearments and their bickering, but they also appal her;
‘How awful married people are, she thought. So public, sprawling over everyone and everything,’
She is appalled by their sense of entitlement; to carry on their marriages in public, whilst in contrast, for her to ‘carry on’ must be a matter of discretion.
We might also read into Pritchett’s singularity a sense of self as both embodied and lived. This singularity is cultivated by Berenice as her identity. In her dealings with others, her singularity is the outward face, the image of self as shown to the other; a mask, and at the same time it is the self-image of her true inner self. But most tellingly, when Pritchett writes that Berenice ‘felt her singularity’, there is a sense in which the reader might understand singularity as a mode of feeling. And as such, singularity is the initial prickling sensation of an aversive self-consciousness. At this point the self is exposed, ‘singled out’ and it anticipates evaluation, it is on the brink of evaluation. Singularity is, in this sense, an exceptional feeling of an exceptional self. And this is exhilarating. But the anticipation of evaluation must inevitably also include a feeling of self as not normal and thus not good-enough, for the terms ‘normal’ and ‘good’ (or at least good-enough) are indivisible. Singularity, as an acute awareness of self, exposed to the other who has the power to judge, is a momentary sensation, a transient feeling of potential. But it is also a feeling of being on the brink of being engulfed. And in this feeling of reverberation, my singularity ensingles me, almost like love.
Those of us who think we are happily unhitched, who choose to live outwith the institutional privacy of coupledom do not necessarily suffer a lack of intimacy, or even love, but we lack the structure of a narrative arc. We have no habitable structure, no place of comfort, of ease and privacy, no space to be intimate, or not. We have no refuge from the opinions and optimism of those who think it is time we settled down, nor against their careful guarding of their own other halves in our company. We are unable to challenge their successful colonisation of ‘normal’ and its equivalence with ‘good’.
To whatever degree we are without and outwith coupledom, we have no option but to live within the ideology of love’s plot. As Berlant notes, there is no cultural alternative. No other narrative ends happily, all other endings are uninhabitable, compromised by failure or even tragedy. The emotional cathexes and trigger images of soap opera, romantic comedies, fairy tales, and a million love songs all follow the well-worn trajectory of love overcoming obstacles, advancing towards the promised happy-ever-after. And love’s plot is assumed to apply particularly to women. It is posited as ‘what women want’. However much we might celebrate our independence, our singularity, there remains the systemic cultural assumption that we would give it up in an instant if love came to our rescue. Those who think they don’t require rescuing are anathema. To perversely reject the norm of coupledom and all it promises is to be ‘the odd man out’. Though frequently, the odd man out is a woman.
Berlant, L. (2008). The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture, Durham: Duke University Press.
Pritchett, V. S. (1988). “A Family Man”, in M. Bradbury, (ed.), The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories. New York.