‘Marriage Lines’ by Julian Barnes: Short Story Analysis
‘Marriage Lines’ is a short story of autobiographical nature by the highly acclaimed and popular British writer, Julian Barnes. Julian was a Man Booker Prize winner and a Commandeur of L’ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He was married to literary agent Pat Kavanagh who separated from him for a while and then returned. She was also his literary agent. She passed away from a brain tumor in the year 2008. ‘Marriage Lines’ is probably a semi-autobiographical piece about how Barnes deals with his grief after the loss of his wife. He thought that by returning to the place they both loved, Tràigh Mhòr, in Scotland, he would be able to handle his grief by cherishing their memories together. However, towards the end of ‘Marriage Lines’ Barnes realizes that to overcome loss is not easy. He learned many lessons about how to handle his grief, one being that he would no longer return to Tràigh Mhòr.
The Tràigh Mhòr, in English ‘Big Beach’, is a vast expanse of sand forming a magnificent white beach at the northern end of the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Barnes and his wife resided at a conventional bed and breakfast on the island run by Calum and Flora. Calum and Flora were a couple defined by tradition, whereas Barnes and Kavanagh had their ups and downs. According to Flora, in keeping with the island’s culture, every person living in that area had a sweater knitted, which told from where he came. The patterns informed the viewer where the person came from; the details with the decorations were about fishing, faith, sea, and sand, and the buttons were a direct reflection of your family. However, there were zigzags across the shoulders, which depicted the ups and downs of married life. These were ‘Marriage Lines’.
We see two couples in this short story, one a Scottish couple and the other a British couple. The Scottish couple were sober, hospitable, respectful, followers of traditions, and were people who never took their marriage lightly. We see this when Barnes says something rude about marriage in the story, and Calum, instead of laughing at the joke, keeps quiet as if the words offended him personally. The British couple, Barnes and his wife were modern, carefree, young, full of the zest for life, and did not take their marriage seriously. We know this, not from the story but the personal biographies of Barnes and Kavanagh. There are certainly zigzags in both unions, however, where the Scottish couple accepted these lines, the British couple refuted them, saying that they would be different from their parents and friends who were stuck in loveless marriages. They wanted to be different and to have no problems in their marriage. This is a farfetched notion. Everyone has ups and downs in their marriage; everyone has zigzag lines. However, Barnes comes to this realization only when he revisits this Scottish beach and remembers Flora’s grandfather’s sweater and the zigzag lines he had found funny. It dawns on Barnes that he would never see his wife again, and having realized that would probably never come back to this part of the land again.
Calum and Flora, treat the news of Kavanagh’s death with quiet respect. They give Barnes his space and don’t ask too many questions. They have had a good relationship for twenty years, and they want to keep it that way. They know that when the couple was not together, Barnes liked to birdwatch the sea birds so Flora would give him a sandwich, some cheese, and an apple to eat along the way. Calum and Flora were very much a traditional orthodox couple. They believed marriage was a sacrament. However, not once did they voice their opinion about the relationship between Barnes and Kavanagh. They treated them with respect as guests, almost formally, one could say, and yet there was something yet so informal about the relationship that just appealed to Barnes. Calum and Flora realized that when Barnes and Kavanagh came to the island the second time, only then were they married. Still, they never voiced their opinion on the matter. Instead, Calum gifted them a wine bottle, and Flora to bring something traditional into the forum brought out her grandfather’s sweater with the marriage lines. It was her way of counseling the young couple that there would be ups and downs from now on, but that was the beauty of marriage. The Scottish couple even mentioned their grandfather’s time when couples were only married by declaration and spent their first night on a battered mattress during the moon’s waxing. This were the traditions of old. If these could be accepted, why not the lie of Barnes and Kavanagh on their first arrival to the Bed and Breakfast, saying that they were married when they were not. As long as Barnes and Kavanagh loved each other and were ready to stay faithful to each other, the Scottish couple felt that all would be well.
Barnes had differences with his wife. However, he still loved her. We can see this because:
- He knew she liked to be on her own and pick things on the beach and so allowed her to be by herself.
- He respected her belief never to pick a flower because she believed that the plucking of flowers causes them pain.
- He knew she loved the sea birds called ‘fulmars’, which were even Barnes’ favorite. He, therefore, hid the revelation from her that they were killed in the past for their oil, and their oil used to light the islanders’ lamps.
- Even though she ridiculed him for liking the ‘lazy bed’ form of gardening, he loved her chiding. Now, after her death, he missed it.
- When bullocks almost attacked her, he saved her.
- He couldn’t stop referring to ‘their’ things and ‘their’ island because all these things, even in Kavanagh’s absence, would always remain ‘theirs’.
Imagery and descriptions are used to indicate death, vacancy, and emptiness caused by someone’s departure or something integral to one’s life. We can see that with the description of the dog’s absence, the absence of the golf course, and the absence of the bullocks, all in the same year after Kavanagh’s death. This is highly symbolic of the vacuum death causes in one’s life and the setting in of a life full of grief.
Calum knew that Barnes and Kavanagh were not like his wife and him. But they were friendly people. He loved them and had learned their body language and mindsets well. Therefore, Calum knew that without Kavanagh, Barnes would never return to this part of the land. He thoughtfully buys him postcards, for Barnes to keep as a memory of them at this place. The story ends with a silent reflection on grief, and what pain teaches everyone when the person you love is no longer there with you in the places that you love.
This was a very touching short story penned by a person who loves the sea, beaches, and everything related to living the islander’s life. I would not want to lead an islander’s life. I’m not too fond of the sea; it gives me the creeps. I am a mountain person. I’d love to live at a hill station in India for the rest of my life. This is even though I have lived all my thirty-one years on an Island – Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. I see the sea everywhere, and I’m sick of it. To know about my crazy life, do go on Amazon and check out my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer and Reader of Mumbai.
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