How important is marriage?

It depends on what you’re comparing it to. More importantly, it depends on which gender you’re referring to.

Yesterday’s reading for my Victorian literature class was “Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors,” by Frances Power CobbeIt was written in 1868, but I found the opening passage incredibly relevant. Cobbe begins with an allegory of an alien visitor to Earth:

“The hero of the tale descends upon earth from some distant planet, and is conducted by a mundane (guide) through one of our great cities, where he beholds the docks and arsenals, the streets and marts, the galleries of art, and the palaces of royalty. The visitor admires everything till he happens to pass a graveyard. ‘What is that gloomy spot?’ he asks of his companion. ‘It is a cemetery,’ replies the guide.

‘A–what did you say?’ inquires the son of the star.

‘A graveyard; a place of public interment; where we bury our dead,’ reiterates the (guide).

The visitor, pale with awe and terror, learns at last that there is in this world such a thing as Death, and (as he is forbidden to return to his own planet) he resolves to dedicate every moment left to him to prepare himself for that fearful event and all that may follow it.

Had that visitor heard for the first time upon his arrival on earth of another incident of human existence–namely, Marriage, it may be surmised that his astonishment and awe would also have been considerable. To his eager inquiry whether men and women earnestly strove to prepare themselves for so momentous an occurrence, he would have received the puzzling reply that women frequently devoted themselves with perfectly Hebraistic* singleness of aim to that special purpose; but that men, on the contrary, very rarely included any preparation for the married state among the items of their widest Hellenistic* culture.”

The rest of the essay is just as timely, giving insight into where our notions of marriage come from, and how they might change in the future.

* “Originally denoting an attribute of the Hebrew people, the term ‘Hebraistic’ was used . . . to describe a moral (rather than intellectual) theory of life. The term ‘Hellenistic’, in contrast, was used to denote the intellectual culture or way of life typified by the ancient Greeks.” (Reference, p. 111)

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