The Impossibility of Gift-Giving

It's not as simple as personalizing a teddy bear.


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My 25th wedding anniversary will be here in a few weeks. Apart from those periodic stretches when my husband and I hate each other, we have a blissful marriage. Still, I am dreading the upcoming event because it will require an exchange of gifts. What is there possibly left to give when you’ve been married for 25 years?

Think about it — in a marriage, there are four major gifting-giving occasions a year: birthday, anniversary, Valentine’s Day, and Christmas or its related commercialized religious event. I’m omitting Mother/Father’s Day under the assumption that the children take care of that (which, of course, they don’t), and the one-time events that might require gifting: promotion, completion of a graduate degree, child’s bar mitzvah. For the last of these, custom has it that a husband is supposed to give his wife “a good piece of jewelry” (my husband, it should be noted, was ignorant of this custom).

But for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume there are four gift-giving holidays a year for the average couple. Twenty-five times four is 100. This is a staggering number of gifts. Even at the fifth anniversary, when you’re practically newlyweds, you are up to 20 gifts and likely to be scraping the bottom of the barrel.

I must pause at this point and qualify my argument. Although anthropologists say that gift-giving is a symmetrical activity (if one person gives a gift, the other must give something of comparable value and meaning), this isn’t really the case in marriage. My husband, like most men I know, is not demanding in the area of gifts. If I get him a funny card, he is happy. A tie from Brooks Brothers or Joseph Banks pleases him. On big birthdays and anniversaries, he responds favorably to a book on one of many possible subjects: the London underground, New York architecture, Abraham Lincoln, old TV, old radio, old movies, Old Master paintings, or the National Park System. You get the idea. He likes old — and barring that, anything else. It is possible to run into Barnes & Noble and grab something randomly off the shelf that will satisfy him.

I, on the other hand, am not so easily satisfied. Thus, when I speak of the difficulty of giving gifts, I am really speaking of my own difficulty receiving them. The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, who generally wrote with a headache-inducing opacity, managed to be comprehensible on the subject of gifts — maybe because his wife had badgered him into some semblance of lucidity. “The gift,” he wrote, “is a figure for the impossible which lies outside symbolic systems.” What Derrida was probably saying was that it was impossible for him to find a gift that pleased his wife — or (seeing as he was French) his mistress (in which case, his gift-giving had to be multiplied by two — a fact which in itself might account for the slippery aspects of his philosophical theory not to mention the density of his prose).

Marcel Mauss, the anthropologist who first wrote about gift-giving, explained that it is steeped in convention and decorum, more important in form than in content. Mauss might be right if one is dealing with a housewarming, a baby shower, or a gift for a friend’s daughter’s graduation. In such cases, “form” — which is to say, the number of zeros on the check — is what’s important. But when it comes to a love relationship, Mauss needs to consult Derrida. The gift can’t be just anything — or anything within a certain prescribed category. It must be something special — something one would not buy for oneself but that, received from the loved one, produces a lurch of surprise and delight at the realization that this is just what one wanted. In marriage, that most intimate of love relationships, the gift must serve the ancillary function of revitalizing the routine of the everyday and infusing it with meaning and romance. In other words, it is a “figure for the impossible.”

Part of the problem of gift-giving within marriage has to do with the passage of time. The more obvious sorts of gifts, delightful during the greener stages of a relationship, quickly become clichéd or redundant when you’ve been together awhile. Thus the dozen roses which thrilled me to the core when my husband and I were dating (white roses, how original!) were not so thrilling when received repeatedly during the first few years of marriage. Likewise, the meal in the fancy restaurant where the waiter scraped the crumbs off the cloth and compulsively refolded my napkin. Or the necklace with the semi-precious stone, picked out at Boscov’s or Macy’s (or whatever department store happened to be near Sears).

Once my husband had exhausted the above gifts (i.e., I had begun to sigh audibly when the roses, calligraphied menu, or necklace with minuscule amethyst made their appearance), he managed a brief reprieve when he hit on buying me clothes. Here was a man who, when we married, didn’t know the difference between a dress and a skirt. The first time he bought me a piece of apparel, I was disarmed. Unfortunately, the praise he received for his foray into Ann Taylor (one would think he had strode into the Amazon without a guide) swelled his head and made him complacent. He continued to buy me dresses long after the novelty of buying them had worn off. Note to men: it is one thing to buy a dress for your wife, another to buy the right one, which is why it is absolutely necessary to consult your wife’s sister before making the purchase. My husband bought me so many dresses that didn’t fit and had patterns that made my eyes cross that I finally put my foot down. Dresses were added to the restricted gift list: no flowers, no dinners, no necklaces with semi-precious stones, no dresses. And while I’m at it: no personalized teddy bears, no gift certificates for a “day of beauty,” and no high teas at Victorian teahouses (sure to be out of business when we get around to going for your scones).

It’s not that I haven’t tried to help my husband buy the right gift. I’ve given nudges and offered hints that any knucklehead should be able to understand.

“Isn’t that a darling bracelet?” I said in March, a month before my birthday.

“Buy it,” he said.

“Oh no, it’s too expensive,” I said. “But it’s sooo pretty.”

Wouldn’t a man with half a brain, given the above cue, buy the bracelet and keep it in a drawer until my birthday? I even gave him the opportunity by wandering off to the shoe department. But come birthday, what did I get? An ugly bracelet.

“Why didn’t you buy me the one I liked?” I asked, trying not to sound accusatory.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I liked this one.”

Please! Not for a moment do I believe that he liked this bracelet. Instead, he forgot which one I liked and simply chose one that he thought, with his stunted esthetic sense, was the same.

My husband now grows pale and jittery as gift-giving occasions approach. Saleswomen come up to me and say, “He’s so worried about finding the right gift for you; it’s adorable.” But I don’t find it adorable. I know that he is less concerned with buying me the right gift than he is terrified of buying me the wrong one. And because he feels terror, he inevitably fails. I look at the gifts he manages to come up with and there’s fear written all over it. Earrings in the shape of fleurs-de-lis? Fear. Automatic foot massager? Fear. The complete works of Sinclair Lewis? Fear. What I’m saying is that a certain amount of confidence is necessary in gift-giving (though it won’t necessarily do any good).

You are probably thinking that I an ungrateful brat (a euphemism). But the fact is that most women share my feelings but hold their tongues for fear of being called, euphemistically, ungrateful brats. A word in our defense. We are not ungrateful. We are, rather, profoundly and hopelessly romantic. The longer we are married, the more we want something worthy of the depth and originality of our relationship. It is our devotion to our husbands and our respect for our marriages that inspire us to want gifts that acknowledge our enduring love. Why is that so difficult for our bone-headed spouses to understand?

Legend has it that there is a turning point in a marriage when the gift ceases to be important. This is the existential apotheosis of the relationship, when two people genuinely become one. Who cares about a stupid gift then? I assume this occurs somewhere around the 50th anniversary. Meanwhile, our 25th will be here soon and I am preparing to have a tantrum. • 19 September 2007



Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her latest book is Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation (Princeton UP).