Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Westermarck Effect as Plot Driver in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Narrative Poem "Dora"

Until only very recently it was not uncommon for people to marry their cousins. The idea of marrying one's cousin as being incest is a very recent development. And from what we know about the psychological aspects of incest avoidance in the Westermarck effect, we should not be surprised that marrying one's cousin was hardly thought to be incest. The cultural elements of incest avoidance emerge out of that biopsychological avoidance mechanism rooted in avoiding sex with anyone with whom one was raised until about the age of seven. It is likely that the addition of cousins to the pool of those one should avoid having sex with as incest stems from our more recent understandings about genetics and the good genetic reasons for avoiding incest.

It is thus that we turn to Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "Dora." At 69 lines, it's a longish poem. Further, it's a narrative poem. The story is that "farmer Allan" wants his son, William, and William's cousin, Dora, to marry. This is hardly controversial in the 1800s. But Tennyson notes something:
Now Dora felt her uncle's will in all,
And yearn'd toward William; but the youth, because
He had been always with her in the house,
Thought not of Dora.
This is a keen insight on Tennyson's part. He notes that William "because / He had been always with her in the house" did not think of Dora as a potential mate. Note the word "because." Tennyson recognizes a causal connection between a lack of romantic interest on the part of William and his having been raised with Dora.

This becomes even more apparent when Allan tells William of his desire that William and Dora marry, and William reacts in a quite violently negative way to the proposal:
"I cannot marry Dora; by my life,
I will not marry Dora!"
More, William's feeling about Dora change after his father insists they will marry anyway:
The more he [William] look'd at her
The less he liked her; and his ways were harsh;
But Dora bore them meekly.
William eventually marries another, Mary Morrison, "half in live, half spite." Spite for whom? His father, whose will he is certainly disobeying. But to what degree is it also for Dora? The ambiguity allows us to assign William's spite to both, and we have seen that there is reason to believe it is in part directed to Dora.

Why should William feel spite toward Dora? The evidence of Minor Marriages in southeast Asia point to the reason. In minor marriages, children are matched as infants, and the girl raised with the boy they are to marry. The much higher rates of infidelity and divorce than we find in the general population points to the likelihood of feelings of spite and harsh treatment, leading to the conditions for increased infidelity and divorce. Further, William would become harsher toward her precisely if he felt contempt.

But the marriage to Mary has considerable consequences that William is apparently willing to bear: being thrown out of his father's house and losing contact with his father. The repulsion caused by the Westermarck effect is so strong that he's willing to lose his home and family to avoid sex with Dora.

The story is resolved when William dies and Dora manages to bring Mary and her son with William to Allan together, and they all end up living together. It is of course a bittersweet ending, since one comes to think that Allan could have been softened earlier, while William was still alive.

But it is this foundational problem of incest avoidance based on the Westermarck effect which drives the narrative. Everything that happens is, of course, a consequence of the Westermarck effect. It is so strong that William is willing to get into a fight with his father, go against his father's will, marry someone else, bear being thrown out of his father's house, and never speak to his father again. More, his attitude changes toward Dora, from brotherly love to treating her harshly.

One may wonder why it is that Dora doesn't feel the Westermarck effect like William does. We get no indication of whether she does or does not feel that way. However, it seems that her willingness to marry William is primarily based on the fact that she is dominated by Allan. She is described as "meek," and she "felt her uncle's will in all." Whether or not she feels repelled by the idea of having sex with William, her meekness prevents her from daring oppose her uncle's will.

This certainly get into an issue of male dominance over women in society at the time. Women could be so bullied by the father figures in their lives that they could actually be pressured into feeling that conflict with that male figure is far worse than incest. It's not that the Westermarck effect isn't felt, but that the meekness fostered in women by the way men treated them could create feelings that overwhelmed even the Westermarck effect. That this is a problem is hardly a controversial statement.

Although it does have a bit of a happy ending -- Allan gets the grandson he wanted -- in most ways the poem is actually a tragedy appropriate for the times. Here we have the overdomineering father pressuring his children (and Dora is his child, since he did raise her) to marry; the male child finds the masculine strength to fight against his father's wishes, since the feelings created by the Westermarck effect are stronger; the female child, however, is so dominated by Allan that it is those feelings that dominate. Had William been weaker, we would have had a more subtle tragedy, since the marriage would have been unstable and likely fallen apart. William's ability to resist his father's will, however, allowed the deeper feelings to dominate.

Freud would have seen the struggle between William and his father as fundamentally "Oedipal" in nature. Of course, the Westermarck effect completely undermines Freud's Oedipal theories. William is likely his father's son, and thus strong-willed. We see this in his successful opposition to his father's will that he marry Dora. The weak-willed Dora is willing to go against what we can presume are her own feelings precisely because she is even more unwilling to go against the will of the domineering father figure in her life. Only with the breakdown of the male dominance inherent in Allan do we see Allan getting what he wants in a grandson and thus a degree of happiness. Dora, however, never marries. Her life is ruined by this male dominance in her life. And that is part of the tragedy as well.

Tennyson thus presents a poem in which patriarchy overrides natural instincts. This is problematic at best, tragic at worst. Insofar as patriarchy overrides such natural instincts as incest avoidance, it is a social problem which has to be fought against. Tennyson brings this to the fore while at the same time demonstrating his considerable insight regarding the true nature of incest avoidance in the Westermarck effect.

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