Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1077

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.

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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, self-sacrificing existence. On the other hand, Solon is a wealthy banker who must exist in a society concerned with money, consumer goods, and pleasure. In previous fiction, Dreiser showed sympathy for those who held the agrarian, spiritual ideal of the nineteenth century, but only in The Bulwark does Dreiser tell an extended tale from what would have been the older generation’s point of view.

In The Bulwark, Dreiser is asking: What happens to a human being who is raised to believe in a Christian, agrarian world but who is placed in an urban, materialistic setting? Dreiser raises the same question in other novels. Carrie Meeber, in Sister Carrie, leaves her rural hometown of Columbia City, Wisconsin, for Chicago and New York. Clyde Griffiths, in An American Tragedy (1925), abandons the poverty and religion of his parents’ mission to enter the wealthy environment of the Green-Davidson hotel. The Bulwark reenacts this same transplantation, but the story is told from the perspective of the older generation; the devout parent, Solon Barnes, reflects on his own failings and on his children’s inability to live by Quaker values.

It is Solon’s children, not Solon himself, who embody the consequences of the relocation from a rural farm in Maine to a mansion in Pennsylvania, from an isolated agrarian lifestyle to an urban, materialistic mode of existence. Each of Solon’s five children, like characters in an allegory, represents a different response to this clash between the father’s values and his or her own experiences. None can maintain the Quaker belief system. Isobel, the first daughter, is not beautiful, and in an increasingly materialistic society where appearance is as important as social position and devotion, she abandons both her father’s religion and secular society to become a scholar. Orville, the first son, inherits his father’s severity and work ethic, but he adopts his father’s religion only as a means of maintaining good appearances. Dorothea, the second daughter, is beautiful and charming; she marries well, and high society becomes her domain. While not openly denouncing the Quaker faith, Dorothea and Orville, through their actions, have embraced material wealth and social success as their ideals. Etta, the third daughter, embodies one more reaction to her father’s inflexible code; she embraces art and moves to Greenwich Village. Stewart, the youngest, is ironically named because he, in the Quaker sense, is the worst “steward.” He rejects his father’s religion, embracing a destructive life of hedonism.

Each child, in a crescendo of tragedy, symbolizes the possible consequences of attempting to maintain Quaker beliefs strictly in an increasingly secular environment. By the end of the novel, however, Etta and Solon, unlike the other characters, have changed. They gain a tragic vision, a vision that allows them to accept both the good and evil in life. They achieve this vision, not by abandoning their Quaker roots, but by adjusting their beliefs to new circumstances, by becoming more flexible, and by more closely associating themselves with the creative force found in nature.

After losing his son and his wife, Solon encounters a snake, a symbol of evil in Christianity. Nevertheless, Solon communes with the snake. Dreiser, like Solon, had a similar experience. Discovering a puff adder, Dreiser killed it, believing it to be poisonous. Later, learning it was not a dangerous snake and experiencing great guilt, Dreiser reassuringly spoke to the next puff adder he encountered, causing the snake to uncoil and retreat. Like Solon, Dreiser believes in a creative force, one that he associates with a divine plan that he observes in nature. Just as Solon finds peace through a resigned acceptance of life’s beauty and pain, so Dreiser must have found peace by writing The Bulwark, a novel that resolves many of the philosophical questions with which he wrestled throughout his life.

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