Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428
One important theme of William Dean Howells’s novel is that of gendered differences in divorce, as well as in the larger issue of marriage. Closely related is the theme of changing middle-class social roles in the nineteenth-century US, as stability of employment gave way to individualism and opportunistic career advancement. More generally, Howells is concerned with individual moral choices, packing quite a few bad ones into one character.
Howells offers the story of Marcia Gaylord and Bartley Hubbard, a married couple whose perceptions of appropriate roles diverge widely. Beginning their marriage quickly, they feel a sense of daring as they defy social convention. When Hubbard decides to divorce his wife, however, she not only is shocked that this defiance extends so far but fearful of the weakness of her position to challenge his petition.
Bartley is portrayed as a selfish man who mistakes his own satisfaction for the general good. He rarely considers other people’s positions; initially misjudging the situation with Hannah, he compounds the problem by physically fighting with her father and injuring a fellow employee. This impetuousness leads him to quit his job and marry Marcia, who may be most attractive for her status as his boss’s daughter. Bartley’s defiant stance, the author implies, is more an indication of his youthful immaturity than any principled opposition to the social strictures that constrain him and his bride.
Once they move to Boston, Bartley’s erratic journalistic career and Marcia’s increasing isolation after the birth of their daughter push them apart. He imagines that he deserves every success and can operate with impunity. His frequently unethical and extreme behavior—including borrowing money, gambling, drinking, and plagiarism—leads him to quarrel with Marcia and then to leave her. While Marcia’s emotional nature sometimes causes her to overreact, the reader sees that she remains otherwise a stereotypically virtuous wife and mother who conveys the scarcity of real choices women had to be self-supporting. Bartley’s bad behavior, in contrast, is further exaggerated when he files for divorce in another state without informing her.
When her friends accompany her to Indiana to contest the suit, the trial goes in her favor—but Bartley has thrown away his career and moves west, where he dies. Although Howells avoids discussing the repercussions of divorce, as it did not in fact occur, even to raise the possibility was unusual in the fiction of the day. Marcia’s virtue remains intact, as well, and Howells hints that one of her steadfast male friends will become a more suitable husband.