In her novel of 1876, Daniel Deronda, George Eliot offers a characteristically arch aside on men and women’s respective attitudes to other people’s partners:
“In general, one may be sure that whenever a marriage of any mark takes place, male acquaintances are likely to pity the bride, female acquaintances the bridegroom: each, it is thought, might have done better; and especially where the bride is charming, young gentlemen on the scene are apt to conclude that she can have no real attachment to a fellow so uninteresting to themselves as the husband, but married him on other grounds. Who under such circumstances pities the husband? Even his female friends are apt to think his position retributive: he should have chosen some one else”.
Heterosexual men pity the woman in a couple, feeling she has compromised and could have done better. Women think of the man in the same way, but with the difference that they take a certain satisfaction in the fact that he is at least being punished for his poor judgement, by getting stuck with a woman so tragically unlike themselves. If Eliot’s bon mot still raises a smile of recognition, it may because it continues to have something to tell us about our sexual constitution.
The first point to emphasise is that in both instances it is the status of the man that is in question. From the point of view of psychoanalysis we might say that Eliot is interested in the two possible relationships to the symbolic father: the phallic ideal that in patriarchal culture tends to be the basis of order, meaning and desire. For the men Eliot describes, the problem of their own inadequacy in being left out of the relationship and the clear inadequacy of the man in the couple, are covered over by speculation about the ‘other grounds’ – money, emotional blackmail, the woman’s own insecurities – that account for her having gotten together him. It is as if the male onlooker says “I may not have turned out to be the phallic ideal that would satisfy this woman’s desire, and this guy certainly isn’t… but somewhere he exists.” The woman’s reaction is significantly different. In her reading, the man in the couple is the closest thing out there to the phallic ideal, but even he is humiliated.
The difference between the male and female reaction to other people’s partners is that the male one anxiously works to preserve the symbolic efficacy of ultimate paternal authority, whereas the female one accepts its existence, but takes it to be ridiculous in some way. As desire functions under patriarchy, the question of where we situate ourselves in relation to phallic authority remains at the centre of both male and female desire. But whereas to be masculine is to make excuses for the mysterious absence of this organising authority, to be feminine is to recognise that, however real its effects, patriarchy is as contingent as a bumbling husband who has failed to realise what he wants.