Charles Dickens and Divorce Statistics

08.16.2010, 2:58 PM

After reading Elizabeth’s post, “The Accidental Husband” and her comment about divorce statistics, I realized that I have an anecdote to share. Before I share the anecdote, let me just say that it seems like everyone I’ve interviewed lately tells me that half of all marriages end in divorce. The fear of divorce is often a reason given for delaying marriage or not marrying at all. Instead these people opt to cohabit and raise a family without the legal status of marriage (thereby avoiding an expensive divorce if they “end up not being right for each other”).

Yesterday, however, I heard one young and engaged working class woman rail against statistics. When asked what she thought about the idea that people who marry young are more likely to divorce she retorted: “That’s not always true. Yes, there is a lot of that…[but] I hate to say it, statistics aren’t always right …science is not always the exact thing. There’s a lot more people that get married our age that actually last than what science thinks…It all depends on the person…Not everybody’s based on a statistic. If we were, everybody’d be plain Jane.”

 Now you might say that her response is naïve or that she is rushing into things and is thus responding defensively, since it is true that statistics show that people who marry in their early twenties are at higher risk of divorce. Of course, we must use discretion when choosing our spouses, and statistics can help us understand which path is best to take. However, there was something wonderfully refreshing about her response. Sometimes to hear people talk you’d think we were all robots with no choice but only chance, our life courses determined by statistical probabilities.

 Statistics are helpful, but they do have their limitations. They can tell us what is, but they cannot tell us what could be or what ought to be. For example, we can use marriage statistics to tell us much about trends and to alert us to potential problems, but this must be supplemented with a discussion of the philosophy of marriage—its purpose, not just its current state. If you’ve ever read Dickens’ Hard Times you probably know what I’m talking about. Remember the depressingly utilitarian, fact-thumping character, Mr. Gradgrind? Check out the exchange below between Mr. Gradgrind, and his daughter Louisa, who has just received a marriage proposal. (If you don’t have time to read all of Dickens’ brilliant description, at least read the last big paragraph, starting with, ‘Why, my dear Louisa.’)

“In that charmed apartment [of Gradgrind’s], the most complicated social questions were cast up, got into exact totals, and finally settled – if those concerned could only have been brought to know it. As if an astronomical observatory should be made without any windows, and the astronomer within should arrange the starry universe solely by pen, ink, and paper, so Mr. Gradgrind, in his Observatory (and there are many like it), had no need to cast an eye upon the teeming myriads of human beings around him, but could settle all their destinies on a slate, and wipe out all their tears with one dirty little bit of sponge.

To this Observatory, then: a stern room, with a deadly statistical clock in it, which measured every second with a beat like a rap upon a coffin-lid; Louisa repaired on the appointed morning. A window looked towards Coketown; and when she sat down near her father’s table, she saw the high chimneys and the long tracts of smoke looming in the heavy distance gloomily.

‘My dear Louisa,’ said her father, ‘I prepared you last night to give me your serious attention in the conversation we are now going to have together. You have been so well trained, and you do, I am happy to say, so much justice to the education you have received, that I have perfect confidence in your good sense. You are not impulsive, you are not romantic, you are accustomed to view everything from the strong dispassionate ground of reason and calculation. From that ground alone, I know you will view and consider what I am going to communicate.’

…‘in short, that Mr. Bounderby has informed me that he has long watched your progress with particular interest and pleasure, and has long hoped that the time might ultimately arrive when he should offer you his hand in marriage. That time, to which he has so long, and certainly with great constancy, looked forward, is now come. Mr. Bounderby has made his proposal of marriage to me, and has entreated me to make it known to you, and to express his hope that you will take it into your favourable consideration.’

Silence between them. The deadly statistical clock very hollow. The distant smoke very black and heavy.

‘Father,’ said Louisa, ‘do you think I love Mr. Bounderby?’

Mr. Gradgrind was extremely discomfited by this unexpected question. ‘Well, my child,’ he returned, ‘I – really – cannot take upon myself to say.’…

…’Why, my dear Louisa,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, completely recovered by this time, ‘I would advise you (since you ask me) to consider this question, as you have been accustomed to consider every other question, simply as one of tangible Fact. The ignorant and the giddy may embarrass such subjects with irrelevant fancies, and other absurdities that have no existence, properly viewed – really no existence – but it is no compliment to you to say, that you know better. Now, what are the Facts of this case? You are, we will say in round numbers, twenty years of age; Mr. Bounderby is, we will say in round numbers, fifty. There is some disparity in your respective years, but in your means and positions there is none; on the contrary, there is a great suitability. Then the question arises, Is this one disparity sufficient to operate as a bar to such a marriage? In considering this question, it is not unimportant to take into account the statistics of marriage, so far as they have yet been obtained, in England and Wales. I find, on reference to the figures, that a large proportion of these marriages are contracted between parties of very unequal ages, and that the elder of these contracting parties is, in rather more than three-fourths of these instances, the bridegroom. It is remarkable as showing the wide prevalence of this law, that among the natives of the British possessions in India, also in a considerable part of China, and among the Calmucks of Tartary, the best means of computation yet furnished us by travellers, yield similar results. The disparity I have mentioned, therefore, almost ceases to be disparity, and (virtually) all but disappears.’

…’Shall I marry him?’ repeated Louisa, with great deliberation.

‘Precisely. And it is satisfactory to me, as your father, my dear Louisa, to know that you do not come to the consideration of that question with the previous habits of mind, and habits of life, that belong to many young women.’”


2 Responses to “Charles Dickens and Divorce Statistics”

  1. “Sometimes to hear people talk you’d think we were all robots with no choice but only chance, our life courses determined by statistical probabilities.

    Statistics are helpful, but they do have their limitations. They can tell us what is, but they cannot tell us what could be or what ought to be.”

    Marvelous.

    I’ve often resorted to the much more bland explanation that statistics tell us about populations but not about individuals. What you say is so much better.

  2. james baumgarte says:

    Agree with some of the reasoning about statistics. However, in my daily life, I can put names and faces to some of these statistics. The children of the broken family structures don’t know about statistics, but they do know about the sadness and turmoil in many of their lives. It seems that the divorced parents generally think their children are the ones that will not be in the negatively affected statistics. And, their new lives will be in the positively affected statistics.