Hard Times deals with divorce in an interesting way in relation to its time period. Victorian marriage laws made divorce next to impossible, as it required an act of Parliament, something extraordinarily expensive to achieve. In 1854, Caroline Norton wrote extensively on the unfair nature of Victorian marriage law in The Making of Modern Law. Norton describes how divorce was a “luxury fairly belonging…to the superior and wealthy classes” (19). She argues that in stating various cases of difficult marriages and needed divorce, she does not “petition for sympathy” but “claim[s] justice”, and that one should “blame the law” for the terrible cases she describes. Dickens, on the contrary, does invoke sympathy for those stuck in unfair marriages in Hard Times. For a poor working man like Stephen Blackpool, divorce was an actual impossibility. He could not escape the immoral, alcoholic wife he so hated. Although Dickens sets up Stephen and Rachael in a beautiful, loving and trusting relationship with each other, prompting hopes for the reader that the two may find a way to be happy at last, he knows that their union is impossible. Either Stephen or his wife would have to die in order for their marriage to be dissolved. Interestingly enough, Dickens does not kill off Blackpool’s wife as would be expected for good feelings all around, but rather Stephen Blackpool himself. Dickens thus creates a pathos for Stephen that urges the reader to pity a man unfortunate enough to end up in such a bad marriage. He does not give the desired happy ending, going so far as to let Rachael live out the rest of her days caring for Stephen’s terrible widow.
In contrast, Mr. Bounderby and Louisa’s separation leaves divorce unclear. He simply sends her packing and resumes his bachelor life. Bounderby dies a few years later, and Louisa grows up to never have children, which leads the reader to believe she was unable to marry again. If Bounderby dies, however, shouldn’t Louisa be able to get remarried? Dickens leaves this matter unclear, though it could be assumed that Bounderby has enough money to pay for a divorce. The harsh treatment of Stephen by Bounderby when he explains his awful marriage predicament comes back to haunt him when he finds Louisa never loved him and has abandoned their marriage. Dickens thus outlines two scenarios in which a husband and wife may be incompatible and could benefit greatly from fair marriage legislation. The unhappy endings for Stephen Blackpool in death, Rachael in husbandless care of her desired lover’s widow, Louisa in never marrying again or having children, and Bounderby in premature death imply that there is no escaping the mark of a bad marriage under such cruel, unmovable laws.
Norton, Caroline Sheridan. English laws for women in the nineteenth century. London, 1854. The Making of Modern Law. Gale. 2015. Gale, Cengage Learning. 28 September 2015