Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Equity. Small town in Maine in which the novel opens on a picturesque winter scene. The town initially seems attractive and in harmony with its natural surroundings. However, several variant meanings of the word “equity” suggests that W. D. Howells had ambivalent thoughts about the town. Equity is a place that fosters the basically simple and provincial outlook of a woman like Marcia Gaylord and constrains an ambitious and unscrupulous man like Bartley Hubbard, whom she marries. Human nature is not morally more pure in Equity; it merely faces less varied temptations there. Bartley is the kind of person who takes mean advantage of others wherever he is, but Equity, where transgressions of laws and mores quickly become generally known, offers only limited scope for his selfishness and arrogant disregard of others. This conservative community also imposes restrictions on him as a journalist and seeker of an interesting social life. In short, Equity cannot hold Bartley, and because Marcia is infatuated with him, she departs also, although it is the sort of place that suits her temperament.
Logging camp. Simple place, close to nature, where Bartley visits Kinney, a man of gentle nature and ingenuous admiration for the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Bartley himself acknowledges that only a person in what he calls “first-rate spiritual condition” can safely commune so closely with nature, but he is far less interested in nature than in the...
(The entire section is 620 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Cady, Edwin H. “The Chief American Realist: 1881-1885.” In The Road to Realism: The Early Years, 1837-1885, of William Dean Howells. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1956. Places the novel in the broader context of Howells’ life and work while offering a general critical overview of the novel.
Smith, Geoffrey D. “Bartley Hubbard and Behavioral Art in William Dean Howells’s A Modern Instance.” Studies in American Fiction 7 (1979): 83-91. Explores Howells’ techniques for depicting psychological processes in the novel.
Spangler, George M. “The Idea of Degeneration in American Fiction, 1880-1940.” English Studies 70, no. 5 (October, 1989): 407-435. Discusses the novel’s place in American literature and identifies it as beginning a reversal of the traditional theme of regeneration. According to Spangler, Bartley Hubbard’s degeneration paves the way for a new type of character, one that dominates much of the great fiction of succeeding years.
Tavernier-Courbin, Jacqueline. “Towards the City: Howells’ Characterization in A Modern Instance.” Modern Fiction Studies 24, no. 1 (Spring, 1978): 111-127. Examines the novel in the light of the conventions of nineteenth century popular fiction. According to Tavernier-Courbin, Howells uses setting and character in the novel to undermine typical romantic stereotypes.
Wright, Ellen F. “Given Bartley, Given Marcia: A Reconsideration of Howells’ A Modern Instance.” Texas Studies in Language and Literature 23, no. 2 (Summer, 1981): 214-231. By examining the many married couples in the novel, Wright argues that Howells does not intend to indict either American culture in general or the institution of marriage in particular.