The large capacity for socialization and networking within the human species allows for the formation, evolution, and destruction of many relationships over a lifetime. The basis of human relationships consists of various elements, including, but not limited to physical, mental, and emotional attraction. A balance between all these elements within a relationship can only strengthen and possibly prolong its duration; however, relationships based on superficial attractions have a weak foundation and a greater chance of termination.
A relationship only fulfilling one of these elements can be seen in the novel, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, by Steven Millhauser, and provides a good example of a relationship based on superficial desires. In the novel, Martin Dressler and Caroline Vernon’s relationship has a foundation of sand, slowly crumbling beneath them. What then makes Martin’s attraction towards Caroline so strong? His attraction for Caroline is based on his ability to manipulate and dominate over her, and fueled by his subconscious obsession.
These features are illustrated throughout the novel when he references Caroline as child-like and defenseless, and views her as a ghostly invader within his mind. Martin’s superiority over Caroline seems to stem from his reoccurring indication of her as a child, which appears in the novel several times. When meeting a person, the first impression can, and most times does, influence how a relationship develops and proceeds. When Martin is first introduced to Caroline Vernon in the Bellingham Hotel, he quickly notes her “small and almost childish features, especially her little girl’s nose” (Millhauser 78).
Martin immediately makes these mental remarks about Caroline and begins to develop a persona for her, which only grows as the relationship develops. Further into the novel, but prior to Martin and Caroline’s marriage, Martin again describes Caroline “as if she were a little girl lost in a blue-green forest” (89). It is clear that Martin views Caroline as childish and child-like, whether describing her physical features or her actions. This adult-child dynamic between adults can cause turmoil within a relationship, as one partner feels superior to the other.
This dynamic can also be seen after Martin and Caroline are married, when on their wedding night Martin describes Caroline “in her white nightdress…she looked to him like a little girl, a sullen mischievous little girl” (156). Obviously, Martin has taken the role of “adult” in this relationship where Caroline is perceived as young, innocent, and under his control. An interaction between Martin and Caroline that further illustrates this point is when he is “stroking her hair, and now there came to him looming out of nowhere, the face of little Alice Bell…but already he could feel desire rising in him” (160).
A previous relationship of Martin’s sparks his memory as he sensually caresses Caroline, which would not be as disturbing if the memory was not of a ten-year-old girl. Martin has developed a persona of Caroline in his mind, which takes on the form of a child. This reoccurring theme of Caroline representing a child demonstrates Martin’s superiority complex, as children can be easily manipulated and dominated over. Caroline is also submissive and passive, which only allows Martin to gain greater control over their relationship.
His domination over Caroline and their relationship is seen at an even greater extent in the sexual realm. In the novel, Martin’s sexual needs are met at the expense of Caroline, as he has complete control once the bedroom doors close. This is clearly demonstrated when Martin is referring to his wedding night, and is filled with “remorse and desire” (145) by the thought of Caroline “alone in a room with him, naked and defenseless, with no way out” (145).
Although this thought incites a little guilt, this does not take away from the fact that Martin knows, whether Caroline wants to or not, he will get his way in the bedroom. Even after Caroline refuses to engage with him on their wedding night, Martin gives her no choice and she “obediently performed her nightly duty… [taking] no pleasure in his attention, lying motionless and silent beneath him” (165). It is quite obvious that Caroline wants nothing to do with Martin sexually; nevertheless, Martin’s domination over her has no bounds and he continues to disrespect her personal wishes.
Even though Martin expresses “Caroline’s absence from the apartment gave his rooms an airiness, a lightness, as if some faint disturbance in the atmosphere had cleared” (249), his attraction towards her remains strong, although their relationship dwindles. Clearly, Caroline’s habits and disposition irritate Martin; but why would one remain in a relationship with such turmoil? Martin strives to be in control and Caroline strives at nothing, which ultimately allows him to take advantage of her passive-aggressiveness and remain on top.
Additionally, Martin is mesmerized by Caroline’s beauty and fueled by his desire for her, even if her presence is often ghostly. Martin’s captivation towards Caroline’s attractiveness grows steadily as their relationship develops, even if her physical being is nothing more than a translucent outline. During one excursions the Vernon women accompany Martin on, Caroline is absent, but Martin realizes that “her absence, sharp as an odor, made him realize the intensity of her presence, when she was actually there, despite the fact that her actual presence resembled nothing so much as absence” (96).
For the first time Martin becomes aware of his interest in Caroline, and notes that her ghostly-being is more noticeable than originally thought. As the novel continues, Martin finds himself drawn to other women, but Caroline’s image persistently pops into his head whenever these other women enter his thought process. When referring to his potential lovers, Martin sees Caroline as “a ghost-wife, a dream-wife—though he wondered whether it wasn’t precisely her lack of substance that allowed her to haunt and hover, to invade the edges of other women” (133).
Martin’s “dream-wife” (133) fits perfectly into his dream-world that he falls in and out of throughout the novel. He cannot get Caroline out of his thoughts, as she has the ability to enter his mind consciously and subconsciously. Even when Martin is having sex with another woman, she is “secretly replaced, in her own bed, by Caroline” (159). Martin’s obsession with Caroline has increased to the point that even while he is having one of the most intimate experiences with another person, all Martin can think about is Caroline.
This superficial obsession consumes Martin, and even though he connects with other women on a deeper level, Caroline’s image haunts him entirely. Dysfunction within a relationship occurs normally; however, dysfunction within Martin Dressler and Caroline Vernon’s relationship is the reason for its ultimate demise. Their relationship is built on shaky supports and Martin’s need for domination and sense of superiority over Caroline is fueled by his superficial attraction and obsessive desire for her; adding excess weight to an already unstable foundation.
Subsequently, as the Grand Cosmo begins is downward spiral into bankruptcy, Martin’s relationship with Caroline finally dissolves. Caroline’s physical presence and mental image within Martin’s head literally fades as his reality becomes clearer. In Martin’s dream world, he has everything; including a dream-wife. However, once his dream-world beings to crumble, Martin is forced to step back into reality. He is left to “just walk along, keeping a little out of the way of things, admiring the view” (293), realizing the world he left behind.