Shelley and the Marriage Question

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Now that marriage, like most other time-honoured institutions, has come to stand, a thing accused, at the bar of public opinion, it may be interesting to see what Shelley has to say about it. The marriage problem is a complex one, involving many questions not very easy to answer offhand or even after much consideration. What is marriage? Of divine or human institution? For what ends was it instituted? How far does it attain these ends? And a dozen others involved in these.

The very idea of marriage implies some kind of bond imposed by society upon the sexual relations of its members, male and female; some kind of restriction upon the absolute promiscuity and absolute instability of these relations—such restriction taking the form of a contract between individuals, endorsed by society, and enforced with more or less stringency by public opinion. Its object at first was probably simply to ensure to each male member of the tribe the quiet enjoyment of his wife or wives, and the free exploitation of the children she or they produced. The patriarchal tyranny was established, and through the sanction of primitive religion and law became a divine institution. Then, as civilization progressed, the wife and children became less and less the mere slaves, more and more the respected subjects, of the patriarch. The paternal instinct (like the maternal) became developed, and family affection came into existence. At present the whirligig of time is bringing its revenges. The patriarchal tyranny begins to totter; parents are often more the slaves than the masters of their children. And even wives begin to rebel against wifedom, and threaten to revolutionize marriage in their own interest. Woman, like everybody else, is beginning to strike for higher wages. There are more than the first mutterings of that revolution in the Golden City of Divine institutions prophesied of by Shelley in Laon and Cythna. There are a good many Cythnas ready to rush about on their black Tartarian hobbies, of whom Mrs. Mona Caird is the one who has recently made most noise.

There is a little design of Blake’s in The Gates of Paradise, which represents a man standing on the earth who leans a ladder against the moon and prepares to mount; the motto underneath being: “I want! I want!” This is a type of our own age. Never was such an age of discontent, never such a Babel of voices crying: “I want! I want!” We have become very conscious of our pain, and are not ashamed to cry out and proclaim it on the house-tops in these hysterical times—simply because the ancient sanctions and anodynes have lost their sanctity and comfort for us. The very “priests in black gowns” who used to “walk their rounds and bind with briers our joys and desires,” have been themselves corrupted with a longing for a little present happiness, and that Old Woman in the shoe, Mrs. Grundy herself, instead of whipping us all round and putting us to bed in the old summary fashion, when we venture to complain that the shoe pinches here and there, has herself become lachrymose....