In _Jacques_ we have the history of a man unhappily married, and this, through the reciprocity which is inevitable under the circumstances, is another story of a woman unhappily married.
At the age of thirty-five, after a stormy existence, in which years count double, Jacques marries Fernande, a woman much younger than he is. After a few unhappy months he sees the first clouds appearing in his horizon. He sends for his sister Sylvia to come and live with himself and his wife. Sylvia, like Jacques, is an exceptional individual. She is proud, haughty and reserved. It can readily be imagined that, the presence of this pythoness does not tend to restore the confidence which has become somewhat shaken between the husband and wife. A young man named Octave, who was at first attracted by Sylvia, soon begins to prefer Fernande, who is not a romantic, ironical and sarcastic woman like her sister-in-law. He fancies that he should be very happy with the gentle Fernande. Jacques discovers that Octave and his wife are in love with each other. There are various alternatives for him. He can dismiss his rival, kill him, or merely pardon him. Each alternative is a very ordinary way out of the difficulty, and Jacques cannot resign himself to anything ordinary. He therefore asks his wife's lover whether he really cares for his wife, whether he is in earnest, and also whether this attachment will be durable. Quite satisfied with the result of this examination, he leaves Fernande to Octave. He then disappears and kills himself, but he takes all necessary precautions to avert the suspicion of suicide, in order not to sadden Octave and Fernande in their happiness. He had not been able to keep his wife's love, but he does not wish to be the jailer of the woman who no longer loves him. Fernande has a right to happiness and, as he has not been able to ensure that happiness, he must give place to another man. It is a case of suicide as a duty. There are instances when a husband should know that it is his duty to disappear. . . . Jacques is "a stoic." George Sand has a great admiration for such characters. She gives us her first sketch of one in Ralph, but Jacques is presented to us as a sublime being.
Personally, I look upon him as a mere greenhorn, or, as would be said in Wagner's dramas, a "pure simpleton."
He did everything to ruin his home life. His young wife had confidence in him; she was gay and naive. He went about, folding his arms in a tragic way. He was absent-minded and gloomy, and she began to be awed by him. One day, when, in her sorrow for having displeased him, she flung herself on her knees, sobbing, instead of lifting her up tenderly, he broke away from her caresses, telling her furiously to get up and never to behave in such a way again in his presence. After this he puts his sister, the "bronze woman," between them, and he invites Octave to live with them. When he has thus destroyed his wife's affection for him, in spite of the fact that at one time she wished for nothing better than to love him, he goes away and gives up the whole thing. All that is too easy. One of Meilhac's heroines says to a man, who declares that he is going to drown himself for her sake, "Oh yes, that is all very fine. You would be tranquil at the bottom of the water! But what about me? . . ."
In this instance Jacques is tranquil at the bottom of his precipice, but Fernande is alive and not at all tranquil. Jacques never rises to the very simple conception of his duty, which was that, having made a woman the companion of his life's journey, he had no right to desert her on the way.
Rather than blame himself, though, Jacques prefers incriminating the institution of marriage. The criticism of this institution is very plain in the novel we are considering. In her former novels George, Sand treated all this in a more or less vague way. She now states her theory clearly. Jacques considers that marriage is a barbarous institution. "I have not changed my opinion," he says, "and I am not reconciled to society. I consider marriage one of the most barbarous institutions ever invented. I have no doubt that it will be abolished when the human species makes progress in the direction of justice and reason. Some bond that will be more human and just as sacred will take the place of marriage and provide for the children born of a woman and a man, without fettering their liberty for ever. Men are too coarse at present, and women too cowardly, to ask for a nobler law than the iron one which governs them. For individuals without conscience and without virtue, heavy chains are necessary."
We also hear Sylvia's ideas and the plans she proposes to her brother for the time when marriage is abolished.
"We will adopt an orphan, imagine that it is our child, and bring it up in our principles. We could educate a child of each sex, and then marry them when the time came, before God, with no other temple than the desert and no priest but love. We should have formed their souls to respect truth and justice, so that, thanks to us, there would be one pure and happy couple on the face of the earth."