i don't

Why Weddings in Books Are Always Terrible

Photo: Courtesy of BBC Films

A weeklong series dedicated to skewering the traditions, expectations, and psychodrama that surround wedding season.

If someone who had never been to a wedding before asked me what they were like, I would give them two thumbs up. If that same person got invited to their first wedding and asked me for advice, I would say that they should eat beforehand, that they should power up for some boring chats, and that they should Lay Off the sparkling wine because there is no hangover quite like it. Don’t heckle during the speeches. Don’t wear white. Don’t cry a lot. Don’t buy a new dress or whatever because no one normal cares what you are wearing, actually, and it is unseemly to put in strenuous effort on a day when someone else has gone to extraordinary lengths to look their best.

My final and most important bit of advice for the unworldly first-time wedding guest is this: Don’t read a book that has a wedding in it. Don’t prepare for your first real-life wedding by taking a dive into fictional accounts of same, because what will happen is that you will be put off for life. Really. If you’d never been to an actual wedding, and had gathered your ideas about their nature from fiction alone, you would imagine them as sites of unremitting carnage and despair.

Think about it. Maybe google “Best Fictional Weddings,” and wonder at the loose definition of the word “best” that seems to obtain in this scenario. What have we here? We have Jane Eyre, trembling and betrayed, veil rent to shreds by Bertha Mason, a woman rendered insane by the occasion of her own wedding to Mr. Rochester. We have Miss Havisham, rotting away in her gown. Here is Fanny Robin in Far From the Madding Crowd, the apotheosis of fiction’s open hostility to and contempt for happy wedding days. Fanny Robin goes to the wrong church on her wedding day by accident, giving her fiancé the welcome opportunity to storm off and abandon her and their unborn baby forever, further giving Thomas Hardy the opportunity to work Fanny Robin over in the most incredible fashion, leading her into destitution and wretchedness and lying in a coffin with her little baby at her side. Here are the guests at the Red Wedding, signing up to attend an event at which they will be shot with crossbows and stabbed a hundred times and crushed under the hoofs of frantic horses. A wedding, in Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, brings a group of people together so that they may all be killed in a fire.

If you had only fiction as a guide to what real-life weddings were like, you would never ever go to one, in case you ended up drowning or being set on fire for the purposes of plot advancement. You would certainly never consent to be a member of an actual wedding party, who are the ones most in danger of dying symbolic deaths by being flung from the back of a pick-up truck driven by the groom at 3 a.m. the night before he must take his vows. The country roads were dark and narrow, and the groom was drunk on both grain alcohol and thoughts of the woman who he still loved, a woman who was not the one who would be walking up the aisle toward him in the morning. The groom was lost in his thoughts, swerving faster and faster, and did not notice the silence from the back of the truck until it was too late and his best man was lying with his neck broken on the side of the road. The wedding was of course called off. This scene doesn’t come from an actual book, I don’t think. I made it up just now, but doesn’t it sound a lot like the type of shit that participants in fictional weddings are forced to endure?

There are a number of potential explanations for fiction’s brutal treatment of weddings. One is the problem of writing happiness: No one, apparently, can write very compellingly about a joyous day where no one cries or recounts a past trauma or does something to ensure that trauma looms for them in their future. There is also a bad wedding’s structural usefulness. If a novelist needs to cut down a number of his characters in the prime of their lives, or deliver some other collective misfortune, a wedding is a plausible means of getting them all in the same room at the same time.

Weddings are good for introducing the subject of Hard Times to Come. If a novel begins with a happy wedding, it is usually only to serve as harrowing contrast to whatever it is that comes next, a fleeting high point for a character to look back upon with wonder at her own naïveté. How could she not have known that it was never going to get better than that day, that she was going to be paying for it in some way for the rest of her life? (This is a popular cinematic device as well, obviously. See: The Deer Hunter, where most of the principal characters pay for the nice time they had at a wedding by being sent to die or lose their minds in Vietnam.) At absolute best, to be a guest at a fictional wedding is to sit, either sweating or shivering (fictional weddings are always either too hot or is there is a some kind of draft coming through a broken pane of stained glass in the old church), and bear witness to two people standing up in front of an audience and announcing that they are willingly going down a path of mutual unhappiness and proposing to take up residence in a hell they will build for each other. Fiction has inexhaustible words to say on the subject of the unhappy marriage, and you can’t have an unhappy marriage without a wedding.

A wedding is also a stunningly efficient way to contrast the rich inner life of the narrator with the soul-eating vacuity of those who throw themselves with abandon into the planning or the enjoyment of the Happy Day. This is a big one. What better illustration of outsider-dom and moral superiority than a character standing to one side grimly observing the mother of the bride arrange the expensive and wrong flowers in anxious sprays. Maybe he is smoking, or thinking about the AA meeting he has not attended. The mother of the bride doesn’t know that the wedding is all a big joke and a charade and a futile attempt to wring meaning from banality. She is dumb. The narrator knows, though. He is smart. See: Theo Decker despairingly going through the preparatory motions in The Goldfinch, or Buddy Glass sitting in the back of the taxi in Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, stunned into contemptuous silence at whatever garbage continues to come out of the matron of honor’s mouth. In fiction, a character’s ability to be sanguine in the face of a wedding means that she has, by definition, not a great deal going on upstairs.

I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule that fiction hates a wedding. I just can’t think of one, not even in Pride and Prejudice, which describes the tying-up of the most well-known marriage plot in literature as follows: “Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters.” That’s it. That’s all you get by way of description of the day itself. Not even Jane Austen could bring herself to describe a wedding day that didn’t include hard times for all, or at least lay the foundation for them.

Is fiction trying to tell us all something?

A Miserable Wedding Syllabus

If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.

Why Weddings in Books Are Always Terrible