William Dean Howells Short Fiction Analysis
William Dean Howells is best remembered in literary history for two things: He wrote more than twenty novels, and he tirelessly defended realism over Romanticism. Howells’s earliest short stories are weak and imitative, often more sketch than story, and not until 1868 in “Tonelli’s Marriage” does he achieve a convincing story by focusing on European social customs as he observed them as consul in Venice.
The death of Howells’s daughter Winifred in 1889 may have prompted him to write several stories treating the subject of immortality, including the so-called Turkish Room tales, a series of “psychic romances” named for a small group who gather at a private club in New York City to explore supernatural themes. The narrator of the stories is a novelist, Acton, who, amid the club’s exotic Indian and Middle Eastern furnishings, reports the conversations that loosely shape the narratives. As a champion of literary realism, Howells justifies these tales by a distinction between romance and Romanticism:Romance [good], as in Hawthorne, seeks the effect of reality in visionary conditions; romanticism [bad], as in Dickens, tries for a visionary effect in actual conditions.
This scheme suggests the famous complementary intentions of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, by Howells’s definition a romancer, and William Wordsworth (a Romanticist) in their Lyrical Ballads (1798).
Other groupings of Howells’s stories include the Dulldale tales, inspired by small towns like Jefferson, Ohio; several children’s stories; and the pair of stories about Basil and Isabel March, “A Circle in the Water” and “A Pair of Patient Lovers.” Only the March narratives have prompted much significant critical attention.
“The Magic of a Voice”
“The Magic of a Voice” is a love story. Stephen Langbourne is awakened one night in his New Hampshire hotel by the voices of two young women in the room next to him, and when he falls in love at first sound with one of the girls, Barbara Simpson, he contrives to get her name and address and even to initiate a winter-long correspondence with her from New York City. Barbara even sends him a photograph of herself. Come spring, Langbourne journeys to New Hampshire and boldly arrives at the home of the two girls, Barbara and her friend from the hotel, Juliet Bingham. Langbourne is dismayed to find Barbara not as attractive as he had imagined, for, as a joke, she had sent Juliet’s photograph instead. Eventually, once Langbourne gets to know both girls, he discovers, after all the misunderstandings are played out, that it is really plain Barbara whom he loves, and they brace themselves to live happily ever after. Although critics have sneered at this story—when condescending to notice it—it has elements that deserve attention, such as the implications of Langbourne’s aural voyeurism. More interesting, however, for gender critics are Howells’s remarks about Barbara—that “there was something almost mannish in her essential honesty,” that “her companionship would be as easy and reasonable as a man’s, while it had the charm of a woman’s,” and that “the [hotel register] entry was in a good, simple hand, which was like a man’s in its firmness and clarity.”
“A Difficult Case”
“A Difficult Case” is one of Howells’s finest stories, a...
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