Themes

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Last Reviewed 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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 428 words.)

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