Roderick Mengham Special Commissioned Essay on the American Novel of Manners Hallmark Works In The Novel Of Manners

Start Your Free Trial

Hallmark Works In The Novel Of Manners

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Download Roderick Mengham Special Commissioned Essay on the American Novel of Manners Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Surveying the many novels of manners that were published in American in the years from the Civil War to World War II reveals more similarities than differences in the plots, styles, techniques, and characters of the works. The authors share an interest in portraying American life through detailed descriptions of everyday life, the frequent use of dialogue, irony, material culture and social behavior. Common elements include themes such as American innocence and experience, rituals of marriage and divorce, transatlantic contrasts, social climbing, education for women. Characters most often are drawn from the upper levels of society where social codes have had a significant amount of time to become defined, or frozen in place. Typical figures, like the innocent American girl, or ingénue, recur. Plot structures often develop around the appearance of an intruder into a previously close-knit social group who questions of threatens the established codes of behavior or moral values. Through detailed descriptions of the characters' clothes, houses, and other possessions, the novelists employ either gentle mockery or caustic satire as they examine human nature through its social manifestations. The comedy of manners, descending directly from the British tradition of Jane Austen, ridicules the foibles of foolish characters but allows them to reform, repent, or marry by the end of the story. The tragic novel of manners indicts the members of society more severely; transgressions result in expulsion from the group, or even in death. Characters are imprisoned in worlds from which they long to escape.

This section offers summaries of the plots of the most important novels of manners, beginning with Henry James' Washington Square (1880) and concluding on the eve of the Second World War with the hard-boiled detective narratives of Raymond Chandler. Literary elements common to these works are then surveyed, including archetypal characters, themes, and devices such as images, metaphors, and allusions to works by other writers.


In the comedy of manners from the eighteenth century, plot usually moves from a meeting of hero and heroine, the emergence of misunderstandings to a resolution in marriage. In the alternate plot more common in the American novel of manners, an innocent or uninitiated figure is introduced into a new social milieu, through marriage or a business endeavor or even an accident; as he or she becomes acquainted with the new surroundings, the reader, too, is initiated into the values and bylaws of that society. Eventually, the main figure adjusts to the new circumstances, and embraces them, or is unable to inhabit it, and is thrust out or chooses to leave. The American writers may combine or adapt this formula. The plots of the great writers like James, Howells and Wharton, moreover, seem to focus as much on the society in which the character lives as on the individual character, especially in the tragic novels of manners. While these writers track the rise and fall of a single figure, like Lily Bart or Silas Lapham or Catherine Sloper, at the same time they paint a picture of the physical and emotional world that character inhabits, ridiculing or indicting not so much an individual as a system of values.


With the publication of James' The American in 1877, Daisy Miller and The Europeans (both in 1878) the pattern for the novel of manners, with international themes, was set in place. In The American, James introduces Christopher Newman, an extremely wealthy self-made man, who has grown tired of the world of business, and goes to Europe to explore life, and, perhaps, to find the perfect wife. He meets Claire de Cintrè, a young countess, daughter of the family of Henri-Urbain de Bellegarde, whom he sees as a woman he must acquire. Her family, however, blocks him from succeeding. Although Claire seems to love the American, the family wants her to marry...

(The entire section is 11,517 words.)