A Modern Instance, the first complete treatment of divorce in a serious American novel, was the most intense study of American society that Howells had done up to that point in his writing career.
In the novel, Howells uses the divorce theme to portray the widening cultural divisions in American society, and in this way, A Modern Instance anticipates many of Howells’s later novels in both its style and preoccupations. Old and new, rural and urban, life in the West and life in the East, and traditional orthodoxy and modern intellectual skepticism are compared in a series of contrasts which reveal Howells’s concern with the social and economic problems of his time. Characteristically, minor characters are used as a chorus to discuss, debate, and analyze issues and questions raised as the story develops.
There is a touch of irony in Howells’s choice of a title, which is taken from the description, in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1599-1600), of the well-fed justice who is “[F]ull of wise saws and modern instances.” The modern instance is the marriage and divorce of Marcia Gaylord and Bartley Hubbard, characters who also appear in The Rise of Silas Lapham, and the novel deals primarily with the question of justice. The “wise saws” in this modern instance are the answers various characters in the novel give to the question, “If judgment must be based on any human activity (such as divorce), should the judgment be based on the motive which prompted the action or on the consequences of...
(The entire section is 636 words.)