Dissecting a Divorce

Once upon a time, in another world very different from ours (except where it was a lot alike) two young people from similar, marginalized backgrounds decided that the best way to “stick it to the man” was to get paid for killing him. Both became hitmen for a criminal organization run by a faction (or House) of the ruling class. Despite their hatred for the ruling class and the society that kept them on the bottom rungs of the ladder of life, they were both more or less assimilated by that society, and had close ties and even friendships with members of the majority ethnic group (or rather, species, because the two young people were human, and the members of the majority ethnic group were not.)

When these two met it was not love at first sight, but only because one had been hired to kill the other. You could however make a case for love at second sight, because the assassination while successful was temporary. The young man who had been killed (and brought back by his aforementioned friends) decided to interrogate his assassin, but the interrogation backfired, and became a conversation. The other assassin was an attractive young woman, and superficially had a lot in common with the young man. Both were assassins, both were witches, and both joined the criminal organization to become assassins.

Unfortunately for both of them, this story doesn’t end in marital bliss and a family that slays together and plays together. Instead, it ends in a painful and messy divorce. The reason for the divorce was because the two people in question were actually very, very different and, as is often the case, the superficial similarities concealed some rather huge differences in beliefs and personality. If you haven’t guessed it (or haven’t read the books) I’m talking about Vlad Taltos and Cawti from Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. The purpose of this essay is to point out why the divorce (or at least trial separation) was inevitable, and why neither party is the “bad guy.”

Tru fax: Just about every guy I’ve met and spoken to about the series has blamed Cawti for the divorce. Vlad is apparently a selfless saint, a downtrodden victim of Cawti’s bitchy desire to be a civil rights activist. (With a side of “Cawti is an ebil Commie!” in some cases.) Cawti is apparently a bad person because she hurt Vlad (who is the main character of the series and therefore can do no wrong?) Vlad is not apparently a bad person because he reacts badly to finding out that Cawti has an entirely different life, one that he isn’t part of. (I’m not sure whether or not female readers automatically defend Cawti, but have been told that the only reason why I defend Cawti to the extent I do is because I’m female.)

To me, the possibilities for blame are:

One is at fault, either Cawti or Vlad. (Cawti for valuing the fight for civil rights over marriage, and not talking to Vlad about what she was up to. Vlad is at fault for reacting with sarcasm and anger when the truth finally surfaces.)

Both are at fault because they are no longer able to communicate effectively for a variety of reasons. (The primary reason being they are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Other reasons include “they decided to get married before they really knew each other,” “they never really learned to communicate in the first place,” and “they mistook superficial similarities for deeper ones.”)

Neither of them is at fault because of outside forces affecting their marriage. (This would include the group Cawti joins, the Jhereg and even the Empire itself. Just one of these things has the potential to put a great deal of stress on a relationship. Two would create rifts, and all three together create more stress than any relationship could take. )

Or maybe, since this is a very realistic relationship, all of the above factors apply to some extent. In a relationship like this, that ends the way it does, there are no bad guys or good guys here. Vlad is not a saint, and Cawti is not a bitch (unless of course the writer says “oh Cawti is a bitch” in which case my meta castle of sand blows away in the wind.) This then is a rough timeline of events illustrating that the divorce was inevitable and unavoidable. What becomes apparent is that despite the superficial similarities, Vlad and Cawti are two very different people. People who, if not for those superficial similarities likely would never have gotten together.

Yendi: This is where Vlad and Cawti meet. (Where “meet” means “Cawti kills Vlad, but he gets better.”) This is also where we get the first inkling that Cawti is not actually Vlad with tits. Cawti identifies primarily as an Easterner who happens to be Jhereg. She has a strong sense of social responsibility (despite being a Jhereg or because of being Eastern) and the idea of “her” people being manipulated into starting a riot fills her with anger. Anger that gets that much stronger when she discovers her previous employer was responsible for instigating the riot. Vlad on the other hand is a Jhereg who happens to be Eastern. His sense of responsibility is personal–pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and take care of “your own” (where your “own” is defined as friends, employees or family) type. He doesn’t understand why she’s angry, and it doesn’t occur to him that something “needs to be done,” about it. It should also be noted that while both Vlad and Cawti hate Dragaerans and the way they treat humans, Cawti’s anger is righteous and general–she blames the society, and wants to force a change. Vlad’s hatred is personal–he is angry about the way he has been treated, and abstract–he blames people, but doesn’t see that there’s a way to change the society.

Jhereg: This is the marital bliss period. Cawti and Vlad were essentially thrown together by circumstances. They decide they click, and sort of hang together. In Jhereg, it’s definitely “more of the same,” they don’t get a much of a chance to settle down and get to know each other, it’s just one thing after another.

Teckla: In Teckla, it’s clear there’s been a lull in the adventure of life. Enough of a lull that Cawti becomes involved with a group of civil rights activists. And because she’s obviously more aware of Vlad’s personal beliefs and possible reactions to her activities than the reverse, she doesn’t tell him what she’s been up to. Cawti’s extramarital affair with social justice gets Vlad into huge trouble with both the Empire and with the Jhereg. Vlad also discovers that Cawti is actually a very different person than the one he thought he married.

Phoenix: Vlad is trying to serve two very different masters so to speak, trying to find a balance between Cawti’s sense of social responsibility, and making money. Cawti is not impressed with Vlad’s efforts. Neither is the Empire. Neither is the Jhereg–or Verra the Demon Goddess for that matter. She decides to solve “The Easterner Problem” by starting a war. The Demon Goddess hires Vlad to kill the king of a small island kingdom, apparently thinking that patriotism will cure the Teckla and Easterner desire for civil rights. Problem: it has the opposite effect. The ultimate result of this particular adventure is that Vlad leaves the Jhereg and goes on the lam.

Orca: We discover that Kiera (and possibly Morrolan and Aliera) are keeping Cawti informed about Vlad’s whereabouts. It is also apparent that Cawtil still cares about Vlad, and vice versa.

Dzur: It falls on Vlad to once more pull Cawti’s bacon from the fire. Again. What makes it undoubtedly worse is the air of “I told you so/I hate when you’re right,” that hovers in the air between them. The situation does end on a high note, though there’s no way of knowing as yet if Vlad and Cawti will reconcile. (I’m kind of hoping they do.)

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Dissecting a Divorce

  1. (Drifted over along some links I have already forgotten). Just about every guy I’ve met and spoken to about the series has blamed Cawti for the divorce.The game is rigged. First, Vlad is telling the story, and he is of course the hero of his own story. Vlad dislikes Cawti's Easterner friends, so it it easy seeing Cawti as foolish by associating with them. To get Cawti's point requires taking a step back from what is told and looking at what happens. Second, there's a sense of inevitability of the Cycle (which is in-story confirmed by Sethra, IIRC). There have been revolutions and republics before, one per cycle — nothing new under the Overcast. The set-up makes it look as if Cawti tried to take on a hurricane or an earthquake. Again, this would need Cawti's POV to see how her civil rights agenda works within the metaphysical framework of the setting.Jhereg: This is the marital bliss period. When re-reading "Jhereg" after "Athyra", I found strong hints that the marriage was built on sand. Vlad doesn't really notice Cawti as an individual, he sees what he expects to see and never thinks about how things might look from her side. Of course, hindsight is 20/20…

  2. Rebecca Harbison

    It’s interesting to visit this after Tiassa — not just the ‘Vlad is twitterpated and planning a wedding’ of the first part, but that it’s the first time we see Cawti sans Vlad and outside his POV. IIRC, (I need to reread) she and Daro also talk about relationships there.

    In some sense, Khaavren and Daro also could be seen to have a whirlwind romance because Khaavren has a track record of becoming infatuated quickly and the book series skips from their meeting and him offering to help her leave town (which leads to her inviting him to stay since his home city gets wiped off the map) to years later when their son is grown. So we don’t know how quickly they moved from ‘hey, you’re cute and have a nice personality, let’s explore this’ to ‘married with a son’. We also don’t know if class expectations — Vlad and Cawti are a racial minority and part of organized crime, while Daro is landed nobility (and Khaavren part of the group of former landed nobility who lost their land) — played a role.

    Or Khaavren and Daro just happened to have more in common than Vlad and Cawti so they lucked out in having a working marriage rather than a mess.

    • I am pretty sure that Tiassa is the first time we see Cawti from a perspective other than Vlad’s. It’s been a while since I’ve read the Khaavren books, so I’m not sure I can comment whether Daro/Khaavren could be seen as a whirlwind romance. Though I do think they have more in common than Vlad and Cawti did.

  3. Very interesting analysis. As a male reader of, as another commenter pointed out, a story written from a male character’s POV, I shared much of the standard blame pattern. Of course, I first read the books when I was in my late teens / college years which also colored my impression. The idea, at that age, that a relationship could appear ‘perfect’ and have serious flaws was alien. Thus it had to be a mistake on someone’s part.

    I would say, looking back, that the author here is right in that there were serious personality and external issues that were going to make the relationship difficult if not unworkable unless many external forces changed. However, communication being the core of working through problems, refusing to discuss a conflict point “because you know the other person is going to have a hissy cow” is never a winning strategy for working through problems.

    So in the end, while I did once blame Cawti for the failure of the marriage, I realize (over time and thanks to this author) that that is far too simplistic. Can I blame Cawti for not being open about her political activities? Sure. But laying the blame for a failed relationship solely at her feet? Nope.

    • I actually do not blame Cawti for not telling Vlad though. Not the best decision she could have made, but it was the only one she really could make given the situation she was in. Being honest would have ended the relationship sooner, because there was no way Vlad was going to accept her point of view or her more radical political opinions. (At least, she has strong evidence that he wasn’t going to, given his “bootstrap” and “I’ve got mine,” approach to life.) And I think she did not want to end the relationship, otherwise she would have broken it off much sooner by letting him find out sooner.

      The Vlad/Cawti relationship is a completely awesome trainwreck. (And, I should probably either update this article to take into consideration the more recent books, or do a follow up article addressing Vlad’s relationships with Lady Teldra and his new girlfriend.)

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