The questioning mind, sole apparatus of the socio-psychologist, has of late years often concerned itself with marriage. Marriage always was discussed, long before Mrs. Mona Caird suggested in the respectable ‘eighties that it might be a failure, but it is certain that with the coming of Mr. Bernard Shaw the institution which was questioned grew almost questionable. Indeed, marriage was so much attacked that it almost became popular, and some believe that the war may cut it free from the stake of martyrdom. Perhaps, but setting aside all prophecies, revolts and sermons, one thing does appear: marriage is on its trial before a hesitating jury. The judge has set this jury several questions: Is marriage a normal institution? Is it so normal as to deserve to continue in a state of civilization? given that civilization’s function is to crush nature.
A thing is not necessarily good because it exists, for scarlet fever, nationality, art critics, and black beetles exist, yet all will be rooted out in the course of enlightenment. Marriage may be an invention of the male to secure himself a woman freehold, or, at least, in fee simple. It may be an invention of the female designed to secure a somewhat tyrannical protection and a precarious sustenance. Marriage may be afflicted with inherent diseases, with antiquity, with spiritual indigestion, or starvation: among these confusions the socio-psychologist, swaying between the solidities of polygamy and the shadows of theosophical union, loses all idea of the norm. There may be no norm, either in Christian marriage, polygamy, Meredithian marriage leases; there may be a norm only in the human aspiration to utility and to happiness.
For we know very little save the aimlessness of a life that may be paradise, or its vestibule, or an instalment of some other region. Still there is a key, no doubt: the will to happiness, which, alas! opens doors most often into empty rooms. It is the search for happiness that has envenomed marriage and made it so difficult to bear, because in the first rapture it is so hard to realize that there are no ways of living, but only ways of dying more or less agreeably.
Personally, I believe that with all its faults, with its crudity, its stupidity shot with pain, marriage responds to a human need to live together and to foster the species, and that though we will make it easier and approach free union, we shall always have something of the sort. And so, because I believe it eternal, I think it necessary.
But why does it fare so ill? Why is it that when we see in a restaurant a middle-aged couple, mutually interested and gay, we say: “I wonder if they are married?” Why do so many marriages persist when the love knot slips, and bandages fall away from the eyes? Strange cases come to my mind: M 6 and M 22, always apart, except to quarrel, meanly jealous, jealously mean, yet full of affability–to strangers; M 4 and many others, all poor, where at once the wife has decayed; when you see youth struggling in vain on the features under the cheap hat, you need not look at the left hand: she is married. It is true that however much they may decay in pride of body and pride of life, when all allowances are made for outer gaiety and grace, the married of forty are a sounder, deeper folk than their celibate contemporaries. Often bled white by self-sacrifice, they have always learnt a little of the world’s lesson, which is to know how to live without happiness. They may have been vampires, but they have not gone to sleep in the cotton wool of their celibacy. Even hateful, the other sex has meant something to them. It has meant that the woman must hush the children because father has come home, but it has also meant that she must change her frock, because even father is a man. It has taught the man that there are flowers in the world, which so few bachelors know; it has taught the woman to interest herself in something more than a fried egg, if only to win the favor of her lord. Marriage may not teach the wish to please, but it teaches the avoidance of offence, which, in a civilization governed by negative commandments, is the root of private citizenship.