Critical Evaluation

Theodore Dreiser devoted the last year of his life to completing The Bulwark, a project that he had started numerous times before then but never completed. The idea for the novel was given to him in 1912 by a young woman named Anna Tatum, who told Dreiser about her Quaker father. Despite having an early outline and draft of the novel and promising several publishers the work, Dreiser did not publish it during his lifetime; it was not published until 1946, a year after his death. While the novel is no longer in print and still receives only mixed reviews, The Bulwark is noteworthy not only because it is Dreiser’s final, complete novel but also because its prose style marks a significant deviation from Dreiser’s previous fiction. The novel also explores and resolves thematic issues raised in all of Dreiser’s works.

Stylistically, Dreiser wrote The Bulwark in a simple and concise style, not a technique for which he is known. The Bulwark is also the shortest of Dreiser’s eight novels, even though the plot follows the Barnes family for three generations. In some passages, the prose reads like a plot summary devoid of detail and dialogue, a mere outline of events. An example of this simple, direct prose is evidenced at the beginning of chapter 26, in which the births of Solon and Benecia’s first three children are recounted in three brief paragraphs. In comparison to Dreiser’s other novels, the syntax and diction are also streamlined. The Bulwark lacks the masses of detail, the complex diction, and the melodramatic pronouncements on life that can be found in Dreiser’s other works. When Etta claims at the end of the novel that she is crying not for herself or for her father but for life, this denouement seems reserved when compared to the conclusion of Sister Carrie (1900). Dreiser’s age and failing health may have contributed to this change in style. It should be noted, however, that the sparse style fits the austere Quaker characters.

While this simple style is unusual for Dreiser, it is the unique exploration of themes commonly found in Dreiser’s work that especially marks this book as significant. The Bulwark is an anomaly in that it is Dreiser’s only extended exploration of his favorite themes from the point of view of the older, nineteenth century generation. Solon and Solon’s father, Rufus, represent this older generation, and their rigid religious beliefs result in a spiritual dilemma for Solon and his children. On the one hand, Solon is a Quaker who believes, and whose ancestors believed, in an agrarian, spiritual, stoic,...

(The entire section is 1077 words.)