Summary and Analysis
Book II: The Discourse on Utopia:
Marriage and Divorce
Women do not marry before they are 18 and men before 22. Those who indulge in forbidden embraces, whether before or after marriage, are severely punished. They believe that if such liberties were condoned, it would discourage people from marrying.
The choosing of a mate is treated as a matter of the greatest importance. Before the two parties give their final consent, the young woman, accompanied by a sedate matron, is presented naked to the prospective groom, and under similar circumstances the young man is exhibited naked to the prospective bride. They consider it strange that in other countries the parties to a marriage are not permitted such an inspection in choosing a mate for life. No one, they say, would buy a horse that was covered by a blanket so that only its head and hoofs were visible.
Divorce is not permitted except in cases of adultery or "insufferable perverseness" of one party. Provision is made for a couple to separate if they find themselves incompatible — provided they can obtain the consent of the Senate, but that is permitted rarely and only after serious deliberation.
If one party in a marriage is found guilty of adultery, he or she is sentenced to slavery, while the innocent spouse is free to marry again.
It is evident throughout Utopia that the family relationship is emphatically advocated and that the permanence of matrimony is supported. The concept of romantic love or the "grand passion" is not brought into the discussion, but it is clear that it was considered important that the parties should be companionable. Obviously the Utopians had no use for marriages of convenience because they would have been based on considerations involving wealth or possibly family titles.
The importance placed on making an educated choice of mates is shown in the practice of arranging for the exposure of the candidates naked. It is difficult not to suspect that More was being halfway humorous in his treatment of this passage, and yet it must be admitted that the practice conforms to the Utopians' habitual emphasis on a life guided by rational principles.
The difficulties placed in the way of obtaining a divorce conform to the plan for insuring a high degree of permanence in marriage. More, as a Catholic, would be expected to treat divorce as a dangerous, last-resort proposition. His views here, if we may suppose they are his views, may seem conservative by modern standards, but he makes some surprising allowances for exceptions to the strictly orthodox regulations of his church. The fact is that the divorce laws have caught up with More's proposals only in this century and then only in certain countries.