Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Engagement: Thinking about Marriage

The society sections of the conservative and respectable New York newspapers carry a picture of a young woman together with her parents' announcement of her engagement to be married. Perhaps the announcement lists briefly the schools of high social standing which the young lady has attended. It may also describe the party at which the engagement was announced. That the families which expect to be brought together in the future marriage are represented in the social register and that considerable family fortunes are involved are matters left unannounced, but they are nevertheless generally understood.

Are the engagements throughout our society simply slight variants on this theme? In Plainville, James West found that engagements are, in contrast to the above type, highly secret affairs. Only the immediate families of each of the pair know of the approaching marriage. Even in communities much less rural and isolated than Plainville, the engagement while not secret may be simply a scarcely perceptible aspect of the growing emotional involvement of two people who have been "going steady." Then again, in many individual cases, an engagement may have largely the function of cloaking sexual exploitation of one of the pair by the other, or, in other cases, a camouflage mutually worn in order to gain freedom from community sex regulations and controls.

What does it mean to be engaged? From the foregoing it is obvious that a good deal of ambiguity and haziness surrounds not only the act of becoming engaged but the very state of being engaged. Perhaps no situation in any society is ever completely defined by the symbols which relate to it, but the engagement situation in our society is one which is left almost completely undefined by its symbols. The symbols are commonly the wearing of a ring or fraternity pin, the announcement of engagement at a party and in the newspaper, exclusive courtship over a long period of time, the words "I love you. Will you marry me?" and so on.

The significance or meaning of engagement, however, is not at all standardized or universal. While the symbols remain fairly constant throughout our society the meaning varies from couple to couple. Even more striking is the fact that the functions which the engagement period fulfills are not regulated by the formal customs of our society. In this respect modern America differs from most other societies. This will be appreciated when we survey the varying customs and functions of the betrothal among groups other than our own.

Functions of the Bethothal in Other Societies

For those who are inclined to view social institutions as products of economic determinism, the Manus people in New Guinea are an interesting primitive group whose patterns of behavior, including those surrounding the betrothal, would seem at first glance to confirm this doctrine. The Manus' adult life is characterized by continuous trading of dogs' teeth, shell money, pigs, and oil. It will be no surprise, then, to the economic determinists in our midst to find that among the Manus the engagement is primarily a property arrangement between families.

Not only do the young pair have nothing to do with the selection, but they must also avoid each other completely during the engagement period. Their names, and even words which resemble their names, are taboo to each other. They are usually betrothed before puberty, by a payment of dogs' teeth and shell money from the father and relatives of the future husband to the father and relatives of the future wife. The betrothed girl spends much of the engagement period in activities connected with the approaching wedding ceremonies, but these are really trading rituals concerned more with property exchanges than with the personal relation being created. Actually this relation is not, strictly speaking, a highly personal one, for husband and wife live together as virtual strangers.

What is the essential function of the engagement among the Manus? Certainly it is not that of preparing a couple for future companionship and cooperation, nor is it a way of insuring sexual compatibility. Among these people neither companionship nor sexual compatibility between the married couple is of any recognized importance. What is tremendously important, however, is the Manus system of investment and trading. In this complex of property exchanges, the adult's mind is preoccupied and his daily work is centered. The essential function of the Manus engagement period, then, is to transform the undisciplined and carefree youngster who has little interest in property or debts into an adult whose chief concern will thenceforth revolve around almost diurnal gift investments and property repayment.

There is, it must be admitted, an indirect way in which the Manus engagement prepares for marriage in the sense in which we in our society are accustomed to think of marriage preparation: since engagement and marriage represent heavy investments not only of the immediate family of the pair but also of a wide circle of their relatives, and since the endurance of the match is necessary to insure the wisdom of such investments, the property ceremonies of the betrothal do have as their by-products some rather obvious social pressures which tend to hold the pair together. On the other hand, the almost universal estrangement between husband and wife among the Manus seems to result in large part from blame projected from each partner on the other for having to give up a carefree childhood to assume the worries and anxieties attendant upon this amazingly property-centered adulthood.

Remote, indeed, seem these psychological and social processes from those related to engagement among ourselves, but perhaps this contrast enables us to perceive a little less dimly the processes involved in our own engagement period. It ought also to enable us to see how overly particularistic the economic determinism dogma is; for our society like that of the Manus is heavily preoccupied with commercial activity, yet the engagement in our society has little to do either with property or with trading except as it operates among the tiny few at the top of our socioeconomic pyramid.

In Samoa the courtship and marriage patterns which are followed contrast sharply with those we have described among the Manus of New Guinea. Samoan courtship consists of sexual and affectional experimentation in surreptitious "love under the palms," secret night meetings in the house of the girl's family, elopement, or the more open and proper "sitting before the girl" in the presence of her parents. Formal engagement is of importance mainly for those of higher rank. Among most Samoans there is little emphasis upon it, nor is there any expectation of faithfulness either before or after marriage.

Where rank is of no concern, choice of mate belongs to the young lovers and is therefore not a strictly parental affair as among the Manus. Here is a society whose individualism in love and in mate selection approaches that of our own. The economic determinist, may we repeat, would expect the Manus, who have a materialistic set of values which in many ways closely parallels our own, to resemble us in such patterns as love and engagement mores more closely than do the Samoans, but quite the opposite is the case.

Among the Trobrianders of northwestern Melanesia the engagement ceremony involves the boy and the girl's parents rather than the girl herself. It consists of a request by the girl's parents for a gift from the boy; by this request they signify their consent to the match. The engagement period is not distinctively one of sexual experimentation, for this has preceded the engagement in a stage of semipromiscuity, during which, however, each succeeding alliance is longer and of an increasingly serious nature. The engagement, then, is but one of several steps leading from a free and easy sexual experimentation to a monogamous relationship. However complex and multifarious the functions of engagement may be elsewhere, its sole function among the Trobriand Islanders, seemingly, is to begin the process of giving social approval to the match.

This premarital license may seem somewhat shocking to us who are accustomed to think of social approval of courtship and engagement as presupposing chastity. That the Trobrianders are wont to give approval to a match only after the couple has been living together for some time should only deepen our understanding of the mutability of socially sanctioned values and standards. Our astonishment at the variability, from one society to another, of man's behavior patterns is exceeded only by our amazement at contradictions from group to group in what is held to be right and what is looked upon as wrong.

Sometimes these antitheses in moral codes occur even between neighboring tribes, as for example between the Pedi and the Thonga. Among the Thonga the unmarried girl may have sexual relations without censure, but once she is married she must remain faithful to her husband. Among the neighboring Pedi, on the other hand, unmarried girls must remain strictly chaste but after they have married and borne a child they may have sexual relations with men other than their husbands. Among the Pedi the engagement is contracted before birth in some instances, and very early in any case, in order to insure sexual abstinence prior to marriage.

No comments:

Post a Comment