(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In the little town of Equity, in northern New England, Bartley Hubbard is an up-and-coming young man. An orphan whose life has so far been one of great promise, he has a free and easy way about him and a ready tongue that makes him a general favorite. Squire Gaylord is pleased with his work as editor of the village paper, the Free Press, but not so pleased when Bartley becomes engaged to Marcia Gaylord, the squire’s only daughter.

One afternoon, Bartley and Marcia go for a sleigh ride. In a swamp, they meet another cutter that has overturned in deep snow while trying to pass them on the narrow trail. The women in the overturned vehicle are Mrs. Morrison and her daughter, Hannah, who work in the office of the Free Press. Bartley jumps out to help them. Mrs. Morrison gets into the cutter by herself. Bartley lifts Hannah Morrison to her place, however, and Marcia is angry enough to participate in their first quarrel.

Hannah is the daughter of the town drunkard. Young Bartley encourages her greatly, thinking to improve the quality of her work, but she interprets his interest as love. Her father calls on Bartley one morning, drunk as usual, and asks Bartley’s intentions toward his daughter. The young editor is so vexed and infuriated that he ejects Hannah’s father bodily. His foreman, Henry Bird, in his turn accuses Bartley of stealing Hannah’s affections. When he hits Bartley in the face, the latter retaliates with an openhanded slap. Henry falls, suffering a concussion when his head hits the floor.

The scandal is immense. Squire Gaylord takes a legal view of the possibility that Bird might die. Marcia interprets the fight as proof of an affair between Bartley and Hannah and breaks their engagement. Bartley resigns his job, even though Bird soon recovers. Bartley stays with Kinney, a crackerbox philosopher who cooks in a nearby logging camp. At the camp, Willett, the owner, visits with a fashionable party. Mrs. Macallister, one of the guests, flirts with Bartley, and he tries to curry favor by poking fun at the quaint Kinney. That same night, Bartley and Kinney part in anger, and the young man walks back to town.

After selling his horse and cutter, Bartley goes to the station to catch the Boston train. Marcia catches up with him at the depot. Asking his forgiveness, she begs him to take her back. They are married the same day and leave for Boston together. In the city, Bartley goes to work. He turns his visit to the logging camp into a feature article that he sells for twenty-five dollars, marking the start of his fairly comfortable, although uncertain, income as a freelance writer. Marcia and he can afford only one room, but they are happy together....

(The entire section is 1111 words.)