Marriage and Divorce in "Hard Times"

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Marriage and Divorce in Dickens’ Hard Times: A Statement on the Religious Morals of 19th Century British Society The Victorian era in England gave birth to the first real industrial society the world had ever seen. With the rise of industry came large cities, an expanded working class population and the rapid rise of imperialism. Although England was progressing towards a more powerful place in the world, its citizens seemed to be drifting in the opposite direction. Oppressive laws and working conditions set clear boundaries between classes in England. The most oppressive social and state laws were those regarding to marriages and divorces. Just as the people of England felt trapped in the unequal social structure of England, the same is true for those trapped in unwanted marital relations. Marriages were regulated by society and the government, therefore, making them more of a materialistic union than a holy or spiritual one. The marriages in Hard Times represent “industrial society” in England during the Victorian era and portray a separation of society from religion.

Marriage in the Victorian era was hardly an example of an equal partnership. When a woman got married, she gave up all her rights to her husband. The husband controlled all assets in the marriage, including any assets his wife may have had before the marriage. The three main marriages described in Hard Times are those between Louisa Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby, Mr. and Mrs. Gradgrind, and Stephen Blackpool and his wife. None of these three marriages are loving or prosperous. The inequality in these marriages and the pain caused by them gives insight into the characteristics of real life marriages during this time. For example, the one marriage that affected Louisa’s upbringing the most was that between her parents. From the beginning of the novel, Mr. Gradgrind is described as, “A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over” (Dickens 6). The reader sees him as a strong, intelligent, no nonsense figure. However, when Mrs. Gradgrind is described, she is described as the complete opposite of her husband. She is introduced as, “Mrs. Gradgrind, a little, thin, white, pink-eyed bundle of shawls, of surpassing feebleness, mental and bodily; who was always taking physic without any effect, and who, whenever she showed a symptom of coming to life, was invariably stunned by some weighty piece of fact tumbling on her” (Dickens 16). Mr. and Mrs. Gradgrind’s marriage displays not only inequality, but also the first signs of incompatibility in a marriage in the book. Already in the novel, Mrs. Gradgrind is oppressed and even burdened by Mr. Gradgrind’s “fact” lifestyle. Mr. Gradgrind’s world of facts is essentially the basis of oppression in marriages during the 19th century.

The fact was, once two people were joined in marriage, it was extremely difficult to get out. In Anne Humpherys’ “Louisa Gradgrind’s Secret: Marriage and Divorce in Hard Times”, she describes the processes of divorce in 19th century England: “As Bounderby makes clear to Stephen, divorce in 1854 was difficult, complicated, and costly. The only "cause" for divorce was adultery, which for women suing had to be "aggravated" by incest or bigamy, though, in fact, legal separations were granted women for abandonment and cruelty. (There were only four full divorces granted women prior to 1857.) Three separate legal actions, including a bill in the House of Lords, were necessary. Legal separation ‘from bed and board’ was possible, but women in that position had no legal rights, nor a right to their own earnings, nor to custody of their children, nor could either party remarry” (Humphreys 1996). Facts were the law. Just as Mr. Gradgrind’s facts were not to be disputed, the law was not to be broken. Any woman who violated the law could be punished by the...
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