Friday, May 20, 2011

Shirley Triumphant

With thanks to my friend Anna, who recommended this book to me, I hope you all enjoy the following excerpt. It's as true today as it was true then. Shirley is the every-girl with their every-visions. It was said in the 'Ten Reasons Stern Girls Won't Date Me' posting:
    7) "I want someone that learns X-teen hours a day" - No you don't! Who do you think you're fooling? Let me tell you what you, and all Stern girls want: You want to live in a suburb of NYC (i.e. Teaneck), you want to go to Israel for succos, Arizona for Pesach, to send your kids to a modern orthodox yeshiva, modern orthodox camps, and you want to have tons of shiny jewelry! Unless you have someone sponsoring your marriage (i.e. your parents or in-laws) and your husband is a kollelnic with zero responsibilities, than try to be more realistic. If you find a buchur who makes a legitimate effort to go to minyan 3x a day and schedules in time to learn daily, in addition to having a steady income, than you have found yourself a quality buchur and you should be quite satisfied! [For the meidels who have just returned Israel: Save this and read it again in a year when you get more in tune with reality! Right now you're probably just assuming that I'm off the derech and practice avoda zarah.]
Noel says the same type of thing to Marjorie.
    Shirley doesn't play fair, you see. What she wants is what any woman should want, always has and always will- big diamond engagement ring, house in a good neighborhood, furniture, children, well-made clothes, furs- but she'll never say so. Because in our time those things are supposed to be stuffy and dull. She knows that. She reads novels. So half-believing what she says, she'll tell you the hell with that domestic dullness, never for her. She's going to paint, that's what- or be a social worker, or a psychiatrist, or an interior decorator or an actress, always an actress if she's got any real looks- but the idea is she's going to be somebody. Not just a wife. Perish the thought! She's Lady Brett Ashley, with witty devil-may-care whimsey and shocking looseness all over the place. A dismal caricature, you understand, and nothing but talk. -
    pages 172-173
And then when Marjorie does marry that typical guy, we are brought this gem of a scene...


She had taken but two or three steps downward when she also saw, in the very last row of the array of black-clad men and beautifully gowned women, the tall blond man in brown tweed jacket and gray slacks, with an old camel's hair coat slung over one arm, incongruous as he was startling. she had not even known Noel Airman was in the United States; but he had come to see her get married. She could not discern his expression, but there wasn't a doubt in the world that it was Noel.

She didn't waver or change countenance at all; she continued her grave descent. But in an instant, as though green gelitan had been slid one by one in front of every light in the ballroom, she saw the scene differently. She saw a tawdry mockery of sacred things, a bourgeois riot of expense, with a special touch of vulgar Jewish sentimentality. The gate of roses behind her was comical; the flower-massed canopy ahead was grotesque; the loud whirring of the movie camera was a joke, the scrambling still photographer in the empty aisle, twisting his camera at his eye, a low clown. The huge diamond on her right hand capped the vulgarity; she could feel it there; she slid a finger to cover it. Her husband waiting for her under the canopy wasn't a proserpous doctor, but he was a prosperous lawyer; he had the mustache Noel had predicted; with macabre luck Noel had even guessed the initials. And she- she was Shirley, going to a Shirley fate, in a Shirley blaze of silly costly glory.

All this passed through her mind in a flash, between one step downward and the next. Then her eyes shifted to her father's face, rosily happy, looking up at her from the foot of the stairs. The green gelitan slid aside, and she saw her wedding again by the lights that were there in the room. If it was all comical in Noel's eyes, she thought, he might derive pleasure from what he could. She was what she was, Marjorie Morgenstern of West End Avenue, marrying the man she wanted in the way she wanted to be married. It was a beautiful wedding, and she knew she was a pretty bride.

She reached the bottom of the stairs. Her father stepped to her side. Taking his arm, she turned a bit and squarely faced into Noel Airman's expected grin; he was not ten feet from her. But to her surprise Noel wasn't grinning. He looked better than he had in Paris: not so thin, not so pale, and he appeared to have gotten back all his hair. His expression was baffled, almost vacant. His mouth hung slightly open; his eyes seemed wet.

The organ music swelled to its loudest. Marjorie marched down the aisle with solemn gladness to her destiny, and became Mrs. Milton Schwartz.

-Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk, pages 556-557


Unlike those who read the book in the context of Marjorie's failure, I assert that she won. She adored Noel and he tried to verbally force her to act on her supposed dreams by arguing otherwise she was just another girl. But what if being just another girl is what she wanted? What if she wanted the loving man, not the brilliant (and emotionally abusive) man? She's a happy Shirley at the end of the day - more than you can say for Noel.


frum single female said...

marjorie morningstar was a great book. i never understood why it was so bad to be a shirley. the alternative was not really better. noel not such a great catch. she was being practical.
i never thought of making this analogy . it definitely works.

Anonymous said...

Herman Wouk once taught at YU - so makes sense he'd know this :-).

Risa Tzohar said...

Wow! That book was old when I read it as a teenager. What memories. Noel Airman was very abusive and in the end did no better than Marjorie at all. In fact in the 21st century he would definitely be taken to task for the abusive way he treated her.

Anonymous said...

Not that there are only 2 possible outcomes (and if that's the description of what all Stern girls want, it's pretty sad imho-please don't tell Dean Bacon)

I'd also consider whether R' Mick's insight applies:

I saw her today at a reception
A glass of wine in her hand
I knew she would meet her connection
At her feet was her footloose man

No, you can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
And if you try sometime you find
You get what you need

Joel Rich

Anonymous said...

I loved other Wouk novels, and your inspired me to read this book. It was decently written, but I HATED it. And, oh, did it make me feel badly for my grandmothers, who came of age in that world!

A strong undercurrent of the book is that men do interesting things, and girls are interesting until they get married or turn 25. The idea that a woman (particularly a married woman!) might actually do anything interesting is completely unthinkable! Marjorie's options are to 'be a Shirley and get married,' or try to be somebody interesting, which she keeps trying at, unsuccessfully. The only interesting thing she can think to be--and the one 'all the other girls are trying to be'--is an actress. It never occurs to anyone that she, smart and creative as she is, could try to write, like Noel or Wally, the two characters in the book who are trying to lead creative lives.

It ends with Wally saying that Marjorie Morningstar is gone. The amazing girl is now just a perfectly ordinary housewife. Never have I so wanted to shake some sense into a fictional character. Marjorie was supposed to be so amazing because she was beautiful, smart, had some morals, and was not easily impressed. The only thing he says has changed is that her hair has gone white and that she's not trying to be anything but a good daughter, wife, and mother. Maybe it's him that's changed, and he can't see how amazing she is anymore, but still.

It also bothered me that marriage automatically meant moving to the suburbs, even though Marjorie grew up in (and loved) the city. Marrying a rich husband has to mean leaving the city. Because, of course, no rich families lived in Manhattan after 1950.

Wouk, who is usually great at timing, had a few lapses in this book. Marjorie graduates in February, this motivates Noel to get a real job, he works at it miserably for 'months' and then quits after attending the Morgenstern seder. Say what?

He made Marjorie a believable character (how she could fall in and out of love with Noel, in particular), but he didn't make Noel believable. He really didn't make it at all believable how the 28 year old Noel would fall in love with the 19 year old Marjorie.

All in all, this is not Wouk's best work. I appreciate an author who can write about religious characters without being condescending, but the way Wouk described Orthodox vs. Conservative Judaism vs. Reform Judaism in the 1930s was pretty condescending. Kind of reminded me of Aish's "Jessica's Journey" novella. Writing that feels like it's hitting me over the head with a bat is not good writing.

--a married mother in the suburbs