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The concept of “marriage” by W. Somerset Maugham in the novel “Mrs. Craddock”


The novel “Mrs. Craddock” by W. Somerset Maugham was written in 1900. In the beginning readers may see the opening line: “This book might be called also The Triumph of Love” [3, p. 11]. The novel is devoted to a love story of two persons from different classes: Bertha Ley, a young attractive passionate heiress and owner of Ley Court, and Edward Craddock, a plain healthy even-tempered farmer with good looks. In fact this is an acute observation of Craddocks’ marriage story - a relation that begins with hope and devoted, passionate love that fizzles with time, disillusionment and familiarity [2]. This novel may be even called a tragedy outlining the crisis in couple’s relations and the collision of their original interests based on “the contrast between her vivid expectations and the flat reality” [3, p. 236]. W. Somerset Maugham also pays attention to the original vast class differences in this alliance that probably could explain the appearance of the troubles revealed later “it was due to the fact that Bertha had consented to marry a penniless beggar like himself and a man of no family” [3, p. 50].

The action takes place between 1890 and 1900. The author took as his models for characters persons he knew except Miss Ley, who “believes in nothing but the stupidity of other people” [3, p. 61]. It was said in the preface of the novel: “She was founded on the portrait-statue of Agrippina in the museum at Naples” [3, p. 8]. The plot contains plenty of strong characters from different social backgrounds that demonstrate their life principles throughout various actions, behavior, sharing their personal opinion and attitudes to numerous issues such as church, marriage, social structure, politics and so on. This novel was thought extremely daring for that period, because some author’s statements reject the stereotypical thinking of that time and seem quite progressive. Characters’ views and ideas contribute to the moral and aesthetic structure of the novel. Nowadays we may regard it as a novel revealing truth and obvious pragmatism traced throughout long centuries.

The motive of total incompatibility between Bertha and Edward and anticipated consequences respectively run constantly through the novel.  Readers find numerous facts of their marriage disapproval by general public starting from the first chapters. The village worthies of Blackstable remark cautiously that “Mr Craddock is a very good young man” and everybody likes him, but no one “should have thought him a suitable match for Bertha.”

In this case let’s analyze the reasons introduced by the writer that brought those two incompatible persons together to married life. The author appeals to a reader considering the meaning and definition of “matrimony” from different sides. He presents various “marriage” interpretations and visions through the opinions and conversations of his heroes.

To start the analysis it’s to the point here to present one of the contemporary definitions of “marriage” taken from Oxford dictionary, i.e. the formal union of a man and a woman, typically as recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife [1]. As one can see the emphasis here is placed on the official relationship registration looking at from a legal perspective. This definition avoids tricky issues concerning marriage nowadays such as feelings, emotions, preferences, material incentives, duty, prejudice and so on.

Maugham provides various concepts of “marriage” in his novel. Two opposite marriage treatments are seen just in the beginning of the book presented in the dialogue between Miss Ley, Bertha’s aunt, and Miss Glover, the vicar’s sister, concerning Bertha’s coming marriage. According to the words of Miss Ley, who is unmarried: “Marriage is always a hopeless idiocy for a woman who has enough of her own to live upon” [3, p. 40]. Readers may trace emerging innovative feminism ideas in this quote. While Miss Glover, representing church class in the novel, sharply objects that “It’s an institution of the Church”. Using obvious irony (“a gift of the Gods”), Maugham introduces instantly a daring reply by Miss Ley:”Is it? I always thought it was an institution to provide work for the judges in the Divorce Court” [3, p. 40 - 41]. These words may uncover obvious truth that many people still refuse to accept. Miss Ley continues: “After all, nine marriages out of ten are more or less unsatisfactory” [3, p. 41]. She compares practically two possible candidates for Bertha - Edward Craddock, a gentleman-farmer, and Mr. Branderton from their own class: “”Really a string of ancestors is no particular assistance to matrimonial felicity…and though I detest reform and progress so far as matrimony is concerned I myself prefer the man who founds a family to the man who ends it” [3, p. 42]. It’s the remark that refers to the constant collision of class values and the origin of a new social group in England at the end of the 19th century. On the contrary Doctor Ramsay traditionally claims: “I’m in favour of everyone sticking to his own class. Nowadays, whoever a man is he wants to be the next thing better; the labourer apes the tradesman, the tradesman apes the professional man” [3, p. 42]. And after having read the novel, one may draw a conclusion that he was right to some extend

Another important feature of a marriage mentioned by practical and somehow cynical Miss Ley in a free and easy manner is the instinct of reproduction that can’t be denied itself. It has nothing to do with social backgrounds and prejudice. No wonder that the writer uses the following ironical description of Bertha and Edward beginning journey along the road of “Holy Matrimony”: “At her marriage she had really known nothing but that she loved him; the senses only had spoken, she and he were merely puppets that nature had thrown together and made attractive in one another’s eyes that the race might be continued” [3, p. 77]. Prolonging the author’s idea Miss Ley comments upon general truth that seemingly shocks other characters: “Bertha is merely the female attracted to the male; and that is the only decent foundation of marriage. And what does it matter if the man is not of the same station. The instinct has nothing to do with the walk of life…The particular function of a woman is to propagate her species, and if she is wise she’ll choose a strong and healthy man to be the father of her children” [3, p. 43]. This theory is extremely popular nowadays after more than 100 years when the novel was created. More and more modern women stick to this exact idea, i. e. leaving a healthy generation. Again readers are involved in strong opposition of progressive views aired by Miss Ley and generally accepted norms of that era presented in the response of Miss Glover who firmly regards “marriage as a holy institution”. She expresses her vision brought up by the church in a shy manner:”I look upon marriage as a spiritual union in which it’s my duty to love, honour and obey my husband, to assist and sustain him…” [3, p. 43]. These citations reflect prevailing interpretations of marriage through all the times; they are still utterly popular in our modern society having their supporters and opponents.

Let’s dwell on to the opinions of main heroes, Edward and Bertha. To start the breakdown of their love story, life values and principles it’s sensible to introduce metaphoric conclusion made by Bertha’s aunt: “They were reading the book of life in their separate ways, one in italics, the other in the big round letters of the copy-book; and how could she help them to find a common character?” [3, p. 104]. Besides apparent heroes’ class differences mentioned earlier and contradictory views the writer gradually reveals various features and consequences of that misalliance.

Edward’s philosophy and his vision of marriage differ greatly from Bertha’s idea. Maugham writes that Craddock’s general impression of a marriage is the following: “Women are like chickens,” he told a friend. “Give ‘em a good run, properly closed in with stout wire setting so that they can’t get into mischief, and when they cluck and cackle just sit tight and take no notice” [3, p. 83]. His words create symbolic effects and draw readers’ attention to the original misunderstanding between heroes. He was not so emotional, sensitive and passionate; he was “a man of regular habbits” that was “fond of her in his placid, calm way” [3, p. 104].

It’s difficult to determine Maugham’s personal position and attitude but he constantly draws logical conclusions expressed in the ideas of Miss Ley after a comprehensive observation analysis.   This observation provides numerous reasons of Craddocks’ family crisis to general public.

The conflict in Bertha’s opinion starts with the husband’s indifference and constant calmness irritating his expressive spouse as it is constantly marked in the book. The author however wants to emphasize a much more significant reason than social splits or different family upbringing of characters. Maugham appeals to the readers, he tries to deliver the main message conveying basic prerequisite of marriage success. His characters suffer from the absence of common vision, support and appreciation of each other; they have opposite aims and priorities. The author comments sorrowfully:  “Her love was a jewel that he valued not at all, that he flung aside and cared not if he lost” [3, p. 168]. When it comes to Bertha’s feelings it is pointed out that in this conflict “Pride, anger, reason, everything had been on one side and only love on the other; and love had conquered” [3, p. 167]. Generally accepted wisdom lies in the words of W. Somerset Maugham: “The hymeneal path had not been found strewn with roses.” The author also introduces the following maxim of La Rochefoucauld to summarize the situation: “Entre deux amant il y a toujours un qui aime et un qui se laisse aimer. Celui qui aime a toujour tort” [3, p. 103].

Being an author of a realistic genre, Maugham can’t miss the opportunity to introduce some witty observations concerning marriage. He describes them using irony or even unhidden sarcasm. The majority of people claim (based on their personal assumptions or self-observations) that the appearance of married people as a rule changes after some time. The following detailed, thorough description of Edward given by Miss Ley enumerates such conventional matrimony changes: “He was becoming bluff and hearty. Also he was filling out; prosperity and a consciousness of his greater importance had broadened his back and straightened his shoulders; he was quite three inches more round the chest than when she had first known him, and his waist had proportionately increased” [3, p. 88]. And she critically remarks to Bertha: “How clever you are…You manage to preserve your beautiful figure.” It seems strange taking into consideration the fact that the novel was written by a male author.

Maugham also describes rows and quarrels between Bertha and Edward, their reconciliation afterwards concentrating on their emotions and feeling.  Married couples know and understand what the author kept in his mind. Loss of the child added new negative emotions and accusations to the conflict. Îne more progressive idea inappropriate for a 19th century female (that could be even forbidden by censorship at that period) comes with another earth-shattering conclusion of Miss Ley: “The fact is that few women can be happy with only one husband. I believe that the only solution of the marriage question is legalized polyandry” [3, p. 228].

 The story of the couple ends with the sudden death of Edward in the accident. Actually the proposed end created by the writer was one of the most appropriate conclusions of Craddocks’ story, when their love had been completely destroyed by the actions of both characters.

At last in the end of the novel W. Somerset Maugham presents his direct personal opinion in bitter realistic words: “I myself stand on one side, and the rest of the world on the other. There is a abyss between that no power can cross, a strange barrier more insuperable than a mountain of fire. Husband and wife know nothing of one another. However ardently they love, however intimate their union, they are never one; they are scarcely more to one another than strangers” [3, p. 255]. We have no right to judge neither characters nor the author’s views.

The value of this novel lies not only in the creation of bright images and characters passing the ideas of that period. It contains the results of a comprehensive analysis of married life and its possible theories of interpretations. The concept of “Marriage Institution” and its meaning are explained by the writer based on realistic examples and checked hypothesis.

The question of marriage meaning is still acute nowadays but more complicated as well. Even though we should not forget a wise ancient saying “marriages are made in heaven and celebrated on earth” emphasizing that marriage is primarily a spiritual union of two souls.


1.     Definition for marriage – Oxford dictionaries Online (World English) // http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/marriage

2.     Mrs. Craddock by W. Somerset Maugham //   http://swiftlytiltingplanet.wordpress.com/2008/02/09/mrs-craddock-by-w-somerset-maugham/

3.     W. Somerset Maugham. Mrs Craddock // Pan Books Ltd, Cavaye Place, London SW109PG, 2nd printing, 1979. – 255 p.