Tayari Jones’ 2018 novel An American Marriage expands upon one of the most common topics of modern literature: love and marriage. While many stories of marriage focus on some of the more typical challenges faced by couples—such as infidelity, competition, or class differences between partners—Jones’ book centers on the repercussions of a world-shattering injustice on Roy and Celestial, a black couple living in Atlanta, Georgia: after having been married for just 18 months, Roy is wrongly convicted of a crime and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Told in intimate detail from the perspectives of both parties, An American Marriage reveals the ways in which this event exacerbates many pre-existing issues between Roy and Celestial. Despite the specificity of its tragedy, the novel makes the broader point that otherwise normal issues can quickly bring a marriage to its breaking point in times of crisis.
Roy and Celestial’s relationship is already showing common signs of distress at the time of the former’s conviction, but none of these issues on its own has been enough to divide the two. For example, before his incarceration, Roy accepts other women’s phone numbers when he goes out with friends—a fact that bothers Celestial and makes her suspicious of her husband’s commitment to her. Nevertheless, the two move past the issues created by such mistrust and to maintain a strong connection for some time, revealing the ability of their marriage to overcome suspicions of infidelity.
The two face professional tensions as well, in part because of their vastly different economic backgrounds: ambitious, small-town Roy defines himself as being “on the come-up,” while Celestial was raised in an upper-class, cosmopolitan family. Roy’s mother Olive is loudly skeptical of Celestial because of her prim and proper ways, creating added stress for their relationship. Celestial and Roy also disagree about the right way to grow the former’s artistic career. While Celestial imagines individually handcrafting her one-of-a-kind dolls for sale as fine art, Roy, who is working to establish himself in the business world, dreams of creating a mass-manufactured luxury toy. At first, however, these issues don’t pose a significant challenge to their relationship—again underscoring the strength of this couple in the face of more or less typical marital strife. They are, in fact, in the process of establishing a business plan that is a compromise between their visions when their lives are upended by Roy’s imprisonment.
Once Roy is wrongfully convicted, all of these relatively common marital stresses in combination quickly bring the relationship to its breaking point. Though at first both parties express their sincere desire to remain together, this initial commitment proves naïve, as what were once seen as minor disagreements make the marriage seem utterly untenable. Roy resents Celestial’s seeming lack of loyalty, believing she should visit at least as often as the wives of those prisoners who, unlike Roy, are actually guilty of their crimes. Celestial, for her part, feels herself unjustly pitied and looked down upon by the outside world for remaining true to her incarcerated husband. The fact that they are denied physical contact and forced to communicate primarily through letters further allows both members of the couple to develop a one-sided idea of the relationship.
Perhaps the greatest factor in the disintegration of Roy and Celestial’s marriage, however, is its youth. As Celestial points out, she and Roy were hardly more than newlyweds when he was taken away; “I danced the line between wife and bride,” she says, adding that “marriage is like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk”—that is, it takes time for two people to bond as one. Their young marriage proves far more vulnerable to stressors—a limb far more easily snapped—than a marriage tested by time. Indeed, Celestial’s faith in her commitment to Roy is irreparably broken at Olive’s funeral, when she sees Big Roy, Roy’s adoptive father, display sincere devotion to his wife even after she has died. This pushes Celestial to realize the weaknesses of her own marriage, as she does not share this sense of commitment to Roy.
As a result, Celestial seeks comfort in a romantic relationship with her long-time friend Andre, who provides her the support and stability that Roy cannot. Not incidentally, she and Andre spent much of their youth sitting beneath Old Hickey, an ancient, sturdy hickory tree situated between their houses that acts as a physical representation of the deep roots of their relationship—and, it follows, the strength of their bond. Roy, meanwhile, finds much-needed comfort in the arms of his former high school classmate Davina. The fact that both Roy and Celestial ultimately end up with partners they have known nearly their entire lives suggests that, above all, even stronger than love is time. Celestial and Roy were denied the time necessary to graft their lives together, and, as such, their vows crumble beneath the weight of their separation. A longstanding, deeply-rooted partnership, on the other hand, can create bonds that no crisis can destroy.
Love and Marriage in Crisis ThemeTracker
Love and Marriage in Crisis Quotes in An American Marriage
Memory is a queer creature, an eccentric curator. I still look back on that night, although not as often as I once did. How long can you live with your face twisted over your shoulder? No matter what people may say, this was not a failure to remember. I’m not sure it is a failure at all.
Did we love so forcefully that night because we knew or because we didn’t? Was there an alarm from the future, a furious bell without its clapper? Did this hopeless bell manage to generate a breeze, causing me to reach to the floor to find my slip and use it to cover myself? Did some subtle warning cause Roy to turn and pin me to his side with his heavy arm?
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?”
Sleeping by myself didn’t kill me then and will not kill me now. But this is what loss has taught me of love. Our house isn’t simply empty, our home has been emptied. Love makes a place in your life, it makes a place for itself in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it’s gone, nothing is whole again.
Am I different? It has been close to three years, so I guess I have changed. Yesterday I sat under the hickory tree in the front yard. It’s the only place where I find rest and just feel fine. I know fine isn’t a lot, but it’s rare for me these days. Even when I’m happy, there is something in between me and whatever good news comes my way. It’s like eating a butterscotch still sealed in a wrapper. The tree is untouched by whatever worries we humans fret over. I think about how it was here before I was born and it will be here after we’re all gone. Maybe this should make me sad, but it doesn’t.
Grandmamma would tell Evie to hush and remind her that getting left by a man was not the worst thing that ever happened to somebody. And Evie would say, “It’s the worst thing that ever happened to me.” She said it so much that she came down with lupus. “God wanted me to see what misery really was,” Evie said. I didn’t like all this God talk, like He was up there toying with us. I preferred more of the tenderness and acceptance my grandmother promised in her hymns. I told this to Evie when I was a little boy and she said, “You got to work with the god you were given.”
You also have to work with the love you are given, with all of the complications clanging behind it like tin cans tied to a bridal sedan.
“I’m ready. But I can’t lie. Sometimes I feel guilty as hell for just being able to live my life.”
I didn’t have to tell him that I understood, because he knew that I did. There should be a word for this, the way it feels to steal something that’s already yours.
When I was twenty-four, living in New York City, I thought maybe black love went that way, too, integrated into extinction.
Nikki Giovanni said, “Black love is Black wealth.”
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.
“I know,” she said. “Nobody around here thought you did it. It was just the wrong race and the wrong time. Police are shady as hell. That’s why everybody is locked up.”
Now Mr. Davenport was loyal to Roy above his own daughter. In a way, the whole black race was loyal to Roy, a man just down from the cross.
“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.
The son that Celestial and I didn’t have would have been four or five, I think. If a kindergartener slept in the backroom, there is no way Celestial would be talking about how she’s with Andre now. I would say, “A boy need his father.” This is a scientific fact. There wouldn’t be anything else to talk about.
But as things were, there was a lot to talk about, more words than could fit into my mouth.
“I accidentally killed a man,” he told me. “I’ve been through a lot, Celestial. Even if you go in innocent, you don’t come out that way. So, please?”
All I wanted to take with me was my tooth. For years, I stored it in a velvet box, like what a ring comes in. I couldn’t tell her because she would think that I was being sentimental, that I was turning the memory of our first date over in my mouth like a mint. She wouldn’t understand that I couldn’t leave without the rest of my body.
Have you ever stared fury in its eyes? There is no saving yourself from a man in its throes. Roy’s face was haunted and wild. The cords of his neck muscles were like cables; his lips made a hard gash. The unceasing blows were fueled by a need to hurt me that was greater than his own need for oxygen or even freedom. His need to hurt me was greater even than my own desire to survive. My efforts to protect myself where ritualistic, mannered, and symbolic, while his fists, feet, and needs were operating from a brutal code.
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.”
But he only turned toward Old Hickey. “It’s too much.” Then quickly—it must have been quickly—but I somehow took notice of each move, Roy tucked his lips against his teeth, gripped the tree like a brother, and then tipped his head back, presenting his face to the sky before driving his forehead against the ancient bark. The sound was muted, like the wet crack of an egg against the kitchen floor. He did it again, harder this time.