Table Talk by William Dean Howells
They were talking after dinner in that cozy moment when the conversation has ripened, just before the coffee, into mocking guesses and laughing suggestions. The thing they were talking of was something that would have held them apart if less happily timed and placed, but then and there it drew these together in what most of them felt a charming and flattering intimacy. Not all of them took part in the talk, and of those who did, none perhaps assumed to talk with authority or finality. At first they spoke of the subject as _it_, forbearing to name it, as if the name of it would convey an unpleasant shock, out of temper with the general feeling.
“I don’t suppose,” the host said, “that it’s really so much commoner than it used to be. But the publicity is more invasive and explosive. That’s perhaps because it has got higher up in the world and has spread more among the first circles. The time was when you seldom heard of it there, and now it is scarcely a scandal. I remember that when I went abroad, twenty or thirty years ago, and the English brought me to book about it, I could put them down by saying that I didn’t know a single divorced person.”
“And of course,” a bachelor guest ventured, “a person of that sort _must_ be single.”
At first the others did not take the joke; then they laughed, but the women not so much as the men.
“And you couldn’t say that now?” the lady on the right of the host inquired.
“Why, I don’t know,” he returned, thoughtfully, after a little interval. “I don’t just call one to mind.”
“Then,” the bachelor said, “that classes you. If you moved in our best society you would certainly know some of the many smart people whose disunions alternate with the morning murders in the daily papers.”
“Yes, the fact seems to rank me rather low; but I’m rather proud of the fact.”
The hostess seemed not quite to like this arrogant humility. She said, over the length of the table (it was not very long), “I’m sure you know some very nice people who have not been.”
“Well, yes, I do. But are they really smart people? They’re of very good family, certainly.”
“You mustn’t brag,” the bachelor said.
A husband on the right of the hostess wondered if there were really more of the thing than there used to be.
“Qualitatively, yes, I should say. Quantitatively, I’m not convinced,” the host answered. “In a good many of the States it’s been made difficult.”
The husband on the right of the hostess was not convinced, he said, as to the qualitative increase. The parties to the suits were rich enough, and sometimes they were high enough placed and far enough derived. But there was nearly always a leak in them, a social leak somewhere, on one side or the other. They could not be said to be persons of quality in the highest sense.
“Why, persons of quality seldom can be,” the bachelor contended.
The girl opposite, who had been invited to balance him in the scale of celibacy by the hostess in her study of her dinner-party, first smiled, and then alleged a very distinguished instance of divorce in which the parties were both of immaculate origin and unimpeachable fashion. “Nobody,” she said, “can accuse _them_ of a want of quality.” She was good-looking, though no longer so young as she could have wished; she flung out her answer to the bachelor defiantly, but she addressed it to the host, and he said that was true; certainly it was a signal case; but wasn’t it exceptional? The others mentioned like cases, though none quite so perfect, and then there was a lull till the husband on the left of the hostess noted a fact which renewed the life of the discussion.
“There was a good deal of agitation, six or eight years ago, about it. I don’t know whether the agitation accomplished anything.”
The host believed it had influenced legislation.
“For or against?” the bachelor inquired.
“But in other countries it’s been coming in more and more. It seems to be as easy in England now as it used to be in Indiana. In France it’s nothing scandalous, and in Norwegian society you meet so many disunited couples in a state of quadruplicate reunion that it is very embarrassing. It doesn’t seem to bother the parties to the new relation themselves.”
“It’s very common in Germany, too,” the husband on the right of the hostess said.
The husband on her left side said he did not know just how it was in Italy and Spain, and no one offered to disperse his ignorance.
In the silence which ensued the lady on the left of the host created a diversion in her favor by saying that she had heard they had a very good law in Switzerland.
Being asked to tell what it was, she could not remember, but her husband, on the right of the hostess, saved the credit of his family by supplying her defect. “Oh, yes. It’s very curious. We heard of it when we were there. When people want to be put asunder, for any reason or other, they go before a magistrate and declare their wish. Then they go home, and at the end of a certain time–weeks or months–the magistrate summons them before him with a view to reconciliation. If they come, it is a good sign; if they don’t come, or come and persist in their desire, then they are summoned after another interval, and are either reconciled or put asunder, as the case may be, or as they choose. It is not expensive, and I believe it isn’t scandalous.”
“It seems very sensible,” the husband on the left of the hostess said, as if to keep the other husband in countenance. But for an interval no one else joined him, and the mature girl said to the man next her that it seemed rather cold-blooded. He was a man who had been entreated to come in, on the frank confession that he was asked as a stop-gap, the original guest having fallen by the way. Such men are apt to abuse their magnanimity, their condescension. They think that being there out of compassion, and in compliance with a hospitality that had not at first contemplated their presence, they can say anything; they are usually asked without but through their wives, who are asked to “lend” them, and who lend them with a grudge veiled in eager acquiescence; and the men think it will afterward advantage them with their wives, when they find they are enjoying themselves, if they will go home and report that they said something vexing or verging on the offensive to their hostess. This man now addressed himself to the lady at the head of the table.
“Why do we all talk as if we thought divorce was an unquestionable evil?”
The hostess looked with a frightened air to the right and left, and then down the table to her husband. But no one came to her rescue, and she asked feebly, as if foreboding trouble (for she knew she had taken a liberty with this man’s wife), “Why, don’t we?”
“About one in seven of us doesn’t,” the stop-gap said.
“Oh!” the girl beside him cried out, in a horror-stricken voice which seemed not to interpret her emotion truly. “Is it so bad as that?”
“Perhaps not quite, even if it is bad at all,” he returned, and the hostess smiled gratefully at the girl for drawing his fire. But it appeared she had not, for he directed his further speech at the hostess again: really the most inoffensive person there, and the least able to contend with adverse opinions.
“No, I don’t believe we do think it an unquestionable evil, unless we think marriage is so.” Everybody sat up, as the stop-gap had intended, no doubt, and he “held them with his glittering eye,” or as many as he could sweep with his glance. “I suppose that the greatest hypocrite at this table, where we are all so frankly hypocrites together, will not deny that marriage is the prime cause of divorce. In fact, divorce couldn’t exist without it.”
The women all looked bewilderedly at one another, and then appealingly at the men. None of these answered directly, but the bachelor softly intoned out of Gilbert and Sullivan–he was of that date:
“‘A paradox, a paradox;
A most ingenious paradox!'”
“Yes,” the stop-gap defiantly assented. “A paradox; and all aboriginal verities, all giant truths, are paradoxes.”
“Giant truths is good,” the bachelor noted, but the stop-gap did not mind him.
He turned to the host: “I suppose that if divorce is an evil, and we wish to extirpate it, we must strike at its root, at marriage?”
The host laughed. “I prefer not to take the floor. I’m sure we all want to hear what you have to say in support of your mammoth idea.”
“Oh yes, indeed,” the women chorused, but rather tremulously, as not knowing what might be coming.
“Which do you mean? That all truth is paradoxical, or that marriage is the mother of divorce?”
“Whichever you like.”
“The last proposition is self-evident,” the stop-gap said, supplying himself with a small bunch of the grapes which nobody ever takes at dinner; the hostess was going to have coffee for the women in the drawing-room, and to leave the men to theirs with their tobacco at the table. “And you must allow that if divorce is a good thing or a bad thing, it equally partakes of the nature of its parent. Or else there’s nothing in heredity.”
“Oh, come!” one of the husbands said.
“Very well!” the stop-gap submitted. “I yield the word to you.” But as the other went no further, he continued. “The case is so clear that it needs no argument. Up to this time, in dealing with the evil of divorce, if it is an evil, we have simply been suppressing the symptoms; and your Swiss method–”
“Oh, it isn’t _mine_,” the man said who had stated it.
“–Is only a part of the general practice. It is another attempt to make divorce difficult, when it is marriage that ought to be made difficult.”
“Some,” the daring bachelor said, “think it ought to be made impossible.” The girl across the table began to laugh hysterically, but caught herself up and tried to look as if she had not laughed at all.
“I don’t go as far as that,” the stop-gap resumed, “but as an inveterate enemy of divorce–”
An “Oh!” varying from surprise to derision chorused up; but he did not mind it; he went on as if uninterrupted.
“I should put every possible obstacle, and at every step, in the way of marriage. The attitude of society toward marriage is now simply preposterous, absolutely grotesque. Society? The whole human framework in all its manifestations, social, literary, religious, artistic, and civic, is perpetually guilty of the greatest mischief in the matter. Nothing is done to retard or prevent marriage; everything to accelerate and promote it. Marriage is universally treated as a virtue which of itself consecrates the lives of the mostly vulgar and entirely selfish young creatures who enter into it. The blind and witless passion in which it oftenest originates, at least with us, is flattered out of all semblance to its sister emotions, and revered as if it were a celestial inspiration, a spiritual impulse. But is it? I defy any one here to say that it is.”
As if they were afraid of worse things if they spoke, the company remained silent. But this did not save them.
“You all know it isn’t. You all know that it is the caprice of chance encounter, the result of propinquity, the invention of poets and novelists, the superstition of the victims, the unscrupulous make-believe of the witnesses. As an impulse it quickly wears itself out in marriage, and makes way for divorce. In this country nine-tenths of the marriages are love-matches. The old motives which delay and prevent marriage in other countries, aristocratic countries, like questions of rank and descent, even of money, do not exist. Yet this is the land of unhappy unions beyond all other lands, the very home of divorce. The conditions of marriage are ideally favorable according to the opinions of its friends, who are all more or less active in bottling husbands and wives up in its felicity and preventing their escape through divorce.”
Still the others were silent, and again the stop-gap triumphed on. “Now, I am an enemy of divorce, too; but I would have it begin before marriage.”
“Rather paradoxical again?” the bachelor alone had the hardihood to suggest.
“Not at all. I am quite literal. I would have it begin with the engagement. I would have the betrothed–the mistress and the lover–come before the magistrate or the minister, and declare their motives in wishing to marry, and then I would have him reason with them, and represent that they were acting emotionally in obedience to a passion which must soon spend itself, or a fancy which they would quickly find illusory. If they agreed with him, well and good; if not, he should dismiss them to their homes, for say three months, to think it over. Then he should summon them again, and again reason with them, and dismiss them as before, if they continued obstinate. After three months more, he should call them before him and reason with them for the last time. If they persisted in spite of everything, he should marry them, and let them take the consequences.”
The stop-gap leaned back in his chair defiantly, and fixed the host with an eye of challenge. Upon the whole the host seemed not so much frightened. He said: “I don’t see anything so original in all that. It’s merely a travesty of the Swiss law of divorce.”
“And you see nothing novel, nothing that makes for the higher civilization in the application of that law to marriage? You all approve of that law because you believe it prevents nine-tenths of the divorces; but if you had a law that would similarly prevent nine-tenths of the marriages, you would need no divorce law at all.”
“Oh, I don’t know that,” the hardy bachelor said. “What about the one-tenth of the marriages which it didn’t prevent? Would you have the parties hopelessly shut up to them? Would you forbid _them_ all hope of escape? Would you have no divorce for any cause whatever?”
“Yes,” the husband on the right of the hostess asked (but his wife on the right of the host looked as if she wished he had not mixed in), “wouldn’t more unhappiness result from that one marriage than from all the marriages as we have them now?”
“Aren’t you both rather precipitate?” the stop-gap demanded. “I said, let the parties to the final marriage take the consequences. But if these consequences were too dire, I would not forbid them the hope of relief. I haven’t thought the matter out very clearly yet, but there are one or two causes for divorce which I would admit.”
“Ah?” the host inquired, with a provisional smile.
“Yes, causes going down into the very nature of things–the nature of men and of women. Incompatibility of temperament ought always to be very seriously considered as a cause.”
“And, above all,” and here the stop-gap swept the board with his eye, “difference of sex.”
The sort of laugh which expresses uncertainty of perception and conditional approval went up.
The hostess rose with rather a frightened air. “Shall we leave them to their tobacco?” she said to the other women.
When he went home the stop-gap celebrated his triumph to his wife. “I don’t think she’ll ask you for the loan of me again to fill a place without you.”
“Yes,” she answered, remotely. “You don’t suppose she’ll think we live unhappily together?”