Previous New Worlds essays have touched on the topic of widows and widowers, specifically in the context of mourning customs, but we’ve never stopped and looked directly at what happens after one member of a marriage outlives their partner — so let’s do that now.
We’ll start with men as widowers, because their situation has usually been more consistent across cultures. More often than not, the expectations for a widower’s behavior hinge on one question: does he have an heir yet? If no, then remarry. If yes, then he’s free to do as he pleases, whether that’s remarry or not.
Of course that isn’t a strict rule. Maybe he can adopt an heir, or legitimize a bastard, or maybe it’s fine if his nephew or brother or cousin fills that role. Maybe in his society, daughters are permitted to inherit (money, estates, titles, or whatever else he has to pass on). But the emphasis is frequently on a man having at least one legitimate male heir of his own body . . . so if he hasn’t managed to take care of that yet, then his duty is to remarry as soon as mourning customs permit and a suitable wife can be found, lest he die without that heir in place.
A man who’s already taken care of that duty can turn his attention to other questions. Does he want companionship? Has his eye fallen on someone appealing? If he has young children, a wife to take care of them might be necessary or at least desirable. The same goes for running a household; servants can take care of things for a rich man, but those servants still need a manager, and that manager is often the lady of the house. Even for a poor man, it’s nice to have someone arranging for meals and clean laundry and so forth. In a pre-modern society with no machines to handle some of that labor, a single man’s life can be significantly burdened by it, or else much less comfortable because it’s not getting done at all.
For widows, the possibilities are much broader. In some places, they may remarry; in others, they must; in still others, they absolutely must not.
Multiple factors go into deciding which way this falls out. During the white settlement of the United States frontier, women were wildly outnumbered by men, which meant that any woman not currently in possession of a husband was a highly desirable resource. The same can be true in a polygynous society, where wealthy men accumulate multiple women in their households, leaving fewer for other men to court. And if women are not permitted to inherit or hold property in their own right, then they’ve got to find a man to support them: possibly a family member like a brother or son, but if not, then a new husband. Levirate marriage is one of the responses to that particular pressure; another is “widow conservation,” where the widow of a Protestant minister (or sometimes his daughter) would marry his successor in that office.
On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got widows who are forbidden to remarry. This came up during the discussion of mourning customs: some East Asian societies have required widows to take vows as Buddhist nuns, and in Indian Hinduism it’s sometimes expected that such women will move to temples and pass the rest of their days begging for alms. I don’t know of any Christian European culture that made this a requirement, but there were certainly more than a few widows (older ones in particular) who took up a new life as nuns — a choice which some abbeys actively encouraged, especially if the widow brought an inheritance with her as a religious dowry. In fact, I suspect the “dowry” aspect is part of what drives this pattern: if custom calls for women to bring some kind of wealth into their marriage, then remarrying entails an additional expense. And who will pay for that, if she can’t? Her birth family, whom she left behind with her first match? Her late husband’s family, who would be handing that wealth over to another family without getting a proper alliance out of it? Ascetic widowhood (the broad term for this practice) is a way around that problem.
But opposition to remarriage can also have an ideological foundation. After all, there’s a sense in which remarriage is infidelity, even if one spouse is gone. The fourth-century saint Macrina the Younger chose to remain faithful even to her fiancé, despite him dying before they could formally wed. At the extreme end, the idea that a wife should be devoted to her husband doesn’t just prohibit remarriage; it results in her death. I’ve previously mentioned the historical Indian practice of sati, where a wife was expected to join her husband on his funeral pyre, but we also see archaeological evidence of a similar thing all over the world: not suicide but sacrifice, with (presumed) wives or concubines strangled, poisoned, or otherwise executed to be buried with a dead king. Some may have chosen it voluntarily, either due to poor hopes for their life going forward or a belief that they will be rewarded in the afterlife . . . but we can’t assume all of them were willing to die.
So what happens after the death of one’s marriage partner is bound up in a complex web of factors: religious ideology, economic support, inheritance patterns, the logistics of daily life, emotional needs, and more. But this kind of thing rarely shows up in speculative fiction as more than a background note (if that), for one simple reason: our central characters are almost never widows or widowers.
There are several factors behind this, too. Even in adult fiction, our protagonists tend to skew young; middle-aged and elderly main characters are still rare enough that they’re the topic of convention panels and recommendation lists. It isn’t impossible for a twenty-something to have lost a spouse already, of course, but it’s less common. And the way we incorporate relationships into our stories very much puts the emphasis on both romantic love and the discovery (not current possession) of one’s true match. So what we get are stories of people falling in love for the first time, not stories of people going from one marriage to another, perhaps finding love and happiness with more than one individual.
But countless people in the real world have done exactly that. So even if there isn’t space in the story to develop one relationship, end it, and then develop another, there’s no reason more characters couldn’t at least have that first experience as part of their backstory. Plenty of contemporary-set novels, both in speculative fiction and outside it, do just fine with the notion that a character has one or more exes in their past. Some of those exes could be late spouses — and they can exist in secondary worlds, too.