In An American Marriage, Jones contrasts the reality of life with the appearances people choose to project. Throughout the novel it is possible to identify the ways in which characters shape the narratives of their lives to be more palatable to others. The novel suggests that this gap between appearances and reality can harm to the very thing a public image is supposed to represent.
Celestial’s dolls—or poupées, as Roy suggests she call them—emblematize the gap between real life and its representation in art. While Celestial had found some success in the art world with her dolls before Roy goes to prison, it is only after he is incarcerated that she makes a doll with Roy’s face wearing a prison uniform; it is this doll that is awarded a great deal of attention and praise. While doing an interview about her incarceration-focused art, however, Celestial fails to point out that her husband has been wrongfully imprisoned and that this situation was the inspiration for the doll. Roy feels betrayed by this narrative elision, believing that Celestial mentioning his case might have brought it attention that could help overturn his conviction. Celestial, meanwhile, fears the stigma associated with having a husband in prison and fails to prioritize Roy’s situation over her own career. Her refusal to publicly acknowledge Roy’s wrongful conviction reveals how, in her art, she omits negative details about her personal life while enjoying the benefits of associating herself with a buzz-worthy political cause. This kind of picking and choosing is a privilege not available to Roy in his concrete cell.
Celestial continues to embrace the media attention she receives and spends time focusing on growing her career, even at the cost of visiting her husband in prison. In this way she turns away from the cause she supposedly supports in favor of embracing the ways she can personally benefit from aligning herself with that cause. Roy notices that Celestial slowly begins to withdraw from him—first by visiting and writing less, and eventually by ceasing to communicate with him at all—and angrily tells his wife in a letter that her dolls do nothing to actually fight the cause of incarceration. Celestial uses her art to benefit from the appearance of being an activist against mass incarceration even as she abandons her personal responsibilities to her husband—the source of her inspiration to become involved in the first place.
When Roy returns home, Celestial continues to try to hide the very real effects of Roy’s incarceration, instead of allowing the messy truth to be out in the open. When Roy begins attacking Celestial’s car to try to get her to answer his question of whether or not she still loves him, she would rather repeatedly bury the intensity of his attack by silencing the car’s alarm than give him an answer she knows will be difficult for him to hear. Her concern about keeping up appearances with the neighbors proves ineffective, though, when the neighbors call the police to break up the fight between Andre and Roy. In this way, the book shows the dire consequences that can occur if one refuses to face the truth and attempts to maintain a façade.
The distance between Celestial’s true situation and the public image she projects serves as a comment on the hypocritical actions that people sometimes take to preserve their self-interests. While Celestial was able to keep her real life and the life she preferred to present separate for much of the novel, this separation breaks down when Roy is released from jail and Celestial is forced to face the double life she’s been living. If Celestial had allowed herself to integrate the two parts of her life from the beginning, she might have experienced greater success in both her marriage and her career, though this would have required a risk that she wasn’t willing to take. Because Celestial wanted to present a clean image to the world, only her career succeeded, at the cost of her marriage.
Appearances vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Appearances vs. Reality Quotes in An American Marriage
But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch. You can’t pick your home any more than you can choose your family. In poker you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land.
But what is real? Was it our uneventful first impression? Or the day in New York, of all places, where we found each other once again? Or did things “get real” when we married, or was it the day that the prosecutor in a little nowhere town declared Roy to be a flight risk? The state declared that though he may have roots in Louisiana, his home was in Atlanta, so he was held without bond or bail. At this pronouncement, Roy spat out a caustic laugh. “So now roots are irrelevant?”
We laughed, a real laugh, a shared laugh. This is when our life changed. We came to each other with joy on our lips. What came next may not have been legally binding; there was no clergyman or witness. But it was ours.
“You say you want my advice. Here’s what I have. Tell the truth. Don’t try to cushion the blow. If you’re bad enough to do it, you’re bad enough to tell it. You can ask you mama. She’ll tell you she was so unhappy because I didn’t drop lies into her morning coffee. The whole time she knew exactly who she was married to.”
“Is it love, or is it convenience?” Gloria asked me that Thanksgiving Day after my father had stormed upstairs and Andre went to gather our coats. She explained that convenience, habit, comfort, obligation—these are all things that wear the same clothing as love sometimes. Did I think this thing with Andre was maybe too easy? He is literally the boy next door.
You know what else they say? What do you call a black man with a PhD? The same thing you call one driving a high-end SUV.
But I was sorry. Not for what was between Celestial and me, I would never regret that. I was sorry for a lot of things. I was sorry for Evie, suffering from lupus for so many years. I was sorry for elephants killed for their ivory. I was sorry for Carlos, who traded one family for another. I was sorry for everyone in the world because we all had to die and nobody knew what happened after that. I was sorry for Celestial, who was probably watching from the window. Most of all, I was sorry for Roy. The last time I saw him on that morning before his mother’s wake, he said, “I never had a chance, did I? I only thought I did.”