Love in Postmodernity. Zadie Smiths Approach of Unconventional Postmodern Relationships in her Novel "N-W"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

16 Pages, Grade: 3,0


Table of Contents

1. The Difficulties in Achieving Happiness in Postmodernity

2. N-W and the Variation of Postmodern Relationship Concepts
2.1. Different Concepts of Postmodern Relationships
2.2. The Tree Pillars of Unconventional Relationships: Individualisation, Self-development, Intimacy, and Sexuality
2.3. Zadie Smith´s Approach to Unconventional Relationships Centred in her Novel N-W
2.3.1. The Integration of Intimacy Through the Character of Leah Hanwell
2.3.2. Natalie Blake Representing Self-development and Individualisation
2.3.3. Felix Cooper and Postmodern Promiscuity

3. Postmodernity and the Absence of Happiness in Marriages

1. The Difficulties in Achieving Happiness in Postmodernity

Love is commonly known as the indescribable passion between two people who found each other and are planning to stay together forever. But the modernised divorce system and such hardships as finances have created the impression that the romantic idea of love has faded the last decades. This phenomenon engages not only sociologists but also authors who are giving thoughts to those developments in their literally works and therefore explore the reasons of such developments associated with postmodern pair-relationships. The high divorce rates are one of the major results of a change in pair-relationships in the western society and the attitudes towards the different manners against having a relationship changed drastically throughout the last century. So postmodernity is the time for free experimentation, diversity, the time of myriads of possibilities, and the time where people respect the choice of the single individual for individualisation and self-development. A lot of people take those many featured chances and explore as much as they can, not only according to their economic possibilities, but also according to their private way of life in their relationships. They grant themselves every personal freedom, the highest profits, and put themselves before anything else. As an effect people are opposed more openly to serial relationships. On the one hand they are trying to compensate their mistakes of their previous partners and are learning to distinguish between what they want and don´t want. On the other hand they live their live as they please not really bearing in mind that the fast change in social values distracts them from their original wish of not spending their live alone when they get old. But according to pair- relationships, this lifestyle does not always end well and never before were the divorce rates in Britain as high as in postmodern times. So the question emerges, if in the end it is possible to remain in the state of happiness in a relationship or if passionate love gives space to individual desires supported by the patterns of contemporary unconventional relationships.

Zadie Smith is one of the many contemporary authors who explores some of this unconventional postmodern relationship patterns and applies the postmodern way of thinking to her characters in her novel. With the help of Smith´s approach to those postmodern relationship concepts and her propagation of unconventional relationship models in N-W, this term-paper first gives a brief overview about the various concepts of postmodern relationships and explains the important aspects of unconventional relationships. With this information given as a basis, the paper then continues with analysis of the three main characters of the novel reflecting their typical postmodern sociological behaviours and the consequences for their relationships.

2.N-W and the Variation of Postmodern Relationship Concepts

2.1. Different Concepts of Postmodern Relationships

Basically, the understanding of a traditional relationship applies to the principle of a classical relationship. This means that a man and a woman meet each other, fall in love, marry, have children, and all is regulated by legal, social and religious rules. Other partners external to the particular pair-relationship are assessed as betrayal. So exclusiveness and faithfulness play a central role within such conventional relationships. Often this pairrelationship becomes the most important commitment within the life of the partner so that networks of family or friends play a minor role.

The opposite of conventional relationships are unconventional ones. They can be classified in respect to distance, to different ethnicities or to family backgrounds or if the couple´s age range is higher than a ten years difference. The most common concept of a unconventional relationship is the extra-marital cohabitation which appears as a mass phenomenon since the 1970s (Schmidt, 45). In this form of cohabitation both partners are living in the same or in separate households but without being formal married. The latter are the so called `Living Apart Together´ couples.

Another upcoming aspect according to the analysis of unconventional relationships is the emerge of pluralisation of relationship concepts in sequent relationships. Although pluralisation has a temporary character, those relationships can also develop into a marriage.

The most frequently named indicator of the emergence of pluralisation is the decline in numbers of marriages and birth rates as well as the incline of the divorce rate (qtd. in Böttcher, 25-26). Like Beck already said in his book Risikogesellschaft from 1986: Immer seltener wird der erste Partner geheiratet, der Einstieg in das Beziehungsleben findet dabei früher statt” (qtd. in Lenz, 27). So as a matter of fact, gathering experience as early and as much as possible becomes very important before committing oneself to an ever-lasting relationship.

Not only aspects of ethnicity, background or age describe a relationship as unconventional. Within the postmodern society, polygamous relationships have become an equal love between women and men who are having two or more relationships at the same time. In this case the constant change of sexual partners has nothing to do with being unfaithful and is not seen as a stigma of betrayal or of moral condemnation. It is rather about honesty and transparency with each partner. This lifestyle fits in very well to the values of postmodern people being individual and being afraid of missing something in their life which they fear to regret later.

Casual sexual relationship is the generic term of a variation of secret and “complex forms of non-committed sexual relationships that vary emotional and sexual involvement and range from one-time encounters to ongoing friendships that include a sexual complement” (Wentland Reissing, 77). This concept includes alliances such as Booty Calls, One-night- stands, or Friends with Benefits. Ambiguous is the duration of a casual relationship as well as the forms of sexual activities and to which degree they inherit intimacy. Most of the time the involved parties don´t talk about their relationship with each other and they use sex as deciding criteria to meet the other partner (Böttcher, 77).

2.2. The Tree Pillars of Unconventional Relationships: Individualisation, Self- development, Intimacy, and Sexuality

Postmodern relationships can be seen as being built on three main pillars determining developments in the process of individualisation, a change in emotional and sexual intimacy, and the importance of people´s sexual satisfaction. According to Inkeles & Smith, on the positive side of the process of individualisation, this has lead to autonomy and independence of personal lives, a liberation from traditional roles and constraints, and a greater open- mindedness and cognitive flexibility. Individualisation is combined with the focus on self- development and the availability of countless opportunities gives every individual the possibility to chose any imaginable path without restrictions. But the variety to develop oneself is also linked with negatives. Sociologists warn that the process of individualisation perishes the private as well as the community life. Therefore the individual dominates over the community and this selfishness of modern individualism is incompatible with love.

The second pillar of unconventional relationships is built on intimacy. According to Jamieson, in popular understanding and social reality, the couple is often treated as the centre of peoples intimate and erotic lives. Intimacy usually refers to a specific sort of knowing, loving and disclosing to another person, with a premodern accentuation on “talking, listening and sharing thoughts and feelings” (van Hooff). So intimacy is seen as an emotional action. This emotional participation within a relationship differs between men and women because each group can only move within a different level of intimacy. For each relationship, intimacy not only has a different meaning but is also treated variously. So Derek Layder defines different types of intimacy like the “Pretence Intimacy” (Layder, 32). Here, the couple´s intimacy has expired. They pretend their intimacy by “putting on a show” (32) so that their environment thinks they are still personal with each other. This is caused by resentment and repressed feelings breaking to the surface. But because of divers reasons they don´t split up but continue to stay together “in an emotional wasteland” (32).

The third pillar on which unconventional relationships are built is the individual fulfilment of sexual desires. “In pre-modern Europe, people entered engagements because of economic circumstances, but not on the basis of love or sexual attraction” (Giddens, 39). “Sex was `culturally silent´ - it had no language of its own, no language as public vernacular and a means of public communication” (Baumann, 21). But this changed especially with the sexual revolution during the 1960s when an alignment of feminine and masculine sexuality started to take place. Furthermore sexuality is defined as communicative relationship with the actors experiencing emotions centred around the subjective and individual genital desires. “For all practical intents and purposes, postmodern sex is about orgasm and the fulfilment of the own pleasures and desires” (24). Moreover, promiscuous sexual experiences and adventures are no longer restricted to fixed relationships, to specific locations, or to the number of people. So within the postmodernity, “sexual delight” and promiscuity “is arguably the topmost of pleasurable sensations” (24) and people are free to live out their erotic imagination.

2.3. Zadie Smith´s Approach to Unconventional Relationships Centred in her NovelN-W

2.3.1 The Integration of Intimacy Through the Character of Leah Hanwell

A classical conventional relationship tentatively starts with two people dating for a couple of times and after getting to know each other and feel comfortable to take their relationship to the next level. The couple gets closer and intimate. So intimacy is the emotional participation within a relationship showing that both partners know, communicate with, understand, and love each other. As already discussed, this process had been shifted to slightly different values such as self-development and sexual fulfilment.

In her novel N-W, Zadie Smith integrates the postmodern concepts of intimacy with the relationship of the character of Leah Hanwel to her husband Michel.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Love in Postmodernity. Zadie Smiths Approach of Unconventional Postmodern Relationships in her Novel "N-W"
University of Bamberg  (English Literature Department)
English Literature
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ISBN (Book)
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love, postmodernity, zadie, smiths, approach, unconventional, postmodern, relationships, novel
Quote paper
Giuliana Helm (Author), 2013, Love in Postmodernity. Zadie Smiths Approach of Unconventional Postmodern Relationships in her Novel "N-W", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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