Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Despite the fact that Theodore Dreiser was the respected author of successful novels at the time he wrote “The Lost Phoebe,” this story was rejected nineteen times before it was published. The difficulty of finding a publisher may have been due in part to the story’s theme. “The Lost Phoebe” is nostalgic and deals with a happy farm couple. Dreiser’s fiction usually examined humans in cities who are mismatched, one partner being more conventional than the other. However, the rural farm life and the depiction of a happily married couple was an American ideal for which Dreiser occasionally longed and that he associated with his first wife, who was raised on a Midwest farm. At the time of writing and publishing “The Lost Phoebe,” Dreiser was separating from this wife. In Twelve Men (1919), a collection of biographical sketches, Dreiser describes several men, including his first wife’s father, who resemble Henry Reifsneider. Although Dreiser was drawn to this American agrarian ideal and tried to capture it in his personal life and occasionally in fiction, he saw it as a passing archetype, one that progress and the city were quickly replacing.

On one level, “The Lost Phoebe” is a simple character sketch that explores the grief that one can experience when a loved one dies, grief that can lead to hallucinations, insanity, and even suicide. On this level, the tale is a realistic representation that enters the unfamiliar world of a...

(The entire section is 479 words.)