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the economical status in marriage

Cathy Zhou's picture

When I started reading NW, I was confused about the entirely different actions by Leah and Michel. And I decided to focus on their difference caused by economical influences.

The story keeps comparing their differences: Leah wants to stay wherever she is, and Michel is always trying to push things forward. Their conflict comes from their different plans for future: as a well-planned man, Michel wants a child but Leah has a fear for having a change. But that difference didn’t occur for Leah hates her husband----she always likes being with Michel when alone, but she got socially embarrassed all the time by his poor English and social awkwardness in public. When they were in Natalie’s house, Leah kept correcting Michel and they came to a little fight which ended soon when they went back home and had time alone. This show that they actually are very harmonious without the society interrupting. Their social life seems to be one interruption to their relationship. And what made the differences?

As we already know, their marriage is biracial----Michel is French and Leah is British. Their marriage was not a planned event; they just run into each other, had sex for multiple times and decided to get married. There’s not much love going on between them, but they are the accepted couple----by society, by their family. When I read about their marriage, I don’t feel there’s any inconsistence or direct conflict, they are an apposite couple, as they fit each other’s gap and in the meantime, have attachment. So this should be a positive marriage, instead of something ended up a tragic.

Although the book doesn’t have many references of Leah’s childhood status, it does mention that Leah lived in a better house when she was growing up. And she went to college in Britain---we can infer that she does not have to care about money. When Shar comes to their house, Leah gave thirty pounds to her for taxi, which is a very generous amount to give to a stranger. If Leah grows up in a poor family, she should be more calculating about money (she should know the least amount needed to go to the hospital.) She seems to be a sensitive city girl who cared more about mental life than material life. This explains the multiple mentions of her longing for the eternity. She wants to stay eighteen, the age when she’s young and beautiful, where she has a naïve sense of the society.

But Michel, as an immigrant from France, is showing some part of himself in daily life as a mourner. He keeps complaining about the life in NW because he feels he could live much better with this much money in France. When Leah gave Shar the money he became very sarcastic. These all show that he cares more about money than Leah does. He is a barber, which means he came to NW with a skill that keeps him alive. And with his poor English, he’s not able to make many local friends which limits him in his social life. As a foreigner, he works much harder than Leah to keep his life going. And that’s one of the reasons that made him a well-planned man. He is alone in this country, and has to have many short-term and long-term plans to keep himself organized. He has to take care of himself in this country, and wants to live like everyone else who’s originally from here. That explains his longing for child when he saw Natalie with her family. A foreigner trying to prove himself independent and well-lived in this country, must prepare himself for many steps of life.

When they form a family, the major conflict comes to their different goals for life. Leah wants a simple life with no change, and Michel keeps his habits of moving on like how he moved to UK.

That reminds me of a recent discussion in China, about a kind of people call 男凤凰 or 女凤凰, which means Phoenix men or Phoenix women. They are the specific ones who grew up in hard conditions (mostly in remote villages in China), formed all their success with their own hands and finally got to move into the city. That’s like how phoenix flies out of the chickens (a Chinese saying). One of the social problems is that, when they get into a city and marry someone growing up in the city, many conflicts would happen after the marriage. In the cases of a Phoenix man, the wife could not bear the lifestyle her husband asked her to have, and mostly come to divorces. But they are in deed love with each other before marriage. When it comes to marriage, sharing property is always a problem, Phoenix tend to be very selfish and controlling on their daily life details. Also, the same problems are more likely to happen on Phoenix men instead of Phoenix women since men are more likely to be the dominant decision-making character in a family. This makes sense in the marriage of Michel and Leah too. They could not change the deeply rooted economical concepts formed when growing up in different environment, which led them to different ways.

As Michel is the one supporting this family economically, he is very controlling in this family, trying to set up his reputation in social life outside the house and be dominant inside the house. But he is socially awkward with his seriousness formed in his early life which caused embarrassment. And as a native speaker and a local girl, Leah is trying to bring her own thought into the marriage; she didn’t choose to change herself for her husband. Even they tried to fit each other by bringing each other into their own social life, they cannot be integrated by the other entirely different social circle.

“If the world was just you and me, says Leah, we’ll be happy all the time.” (p100) If the world is just two of them, attracted by each other, without all the livings to be worry about, it should end up a happy story of two individuals. But marriage must have the influence from the outside world, they have to be realistic about life, and the conflicts are inevitable.