William Dean Howells Long Fiction Analysis
Throughout his career as a fiction writer, William Dean Howells worked against the sentimentality and idealization that pervaded popular American literature in the nineteenth century. He pleaded for characters, situations, behavior, values, settings, and even speech patterns that were true to life. While twentieth century readers came to take such elements for granted, the fact remains that in Howells’s day he was regarded as something of a literary radical. One indication of his radicalism was his preference for character over plot in his fiction: He was far less interested in telling a good story (albeit his stories are good) than in presenting flesh-and-blood characters who think, feel, make mistakes, and are products of genetic, social, and economic conditions—in other words, who are as imperfect (and as interesting) as real people. Howells did not indulge in meticulous psychological analyses of his characters, as did his friend Henry James, and his plots tend to be far more linear and straightforward than are the convoluted and carefully patterned ones of James. Nevertheless, Howells was an innovative and influential writer who changed the quality of American fiction.
A Modern Instance
A hallmark of Howells’s advocacy of realism was his interest in topics that were taboo in Victorian times. Such a topic was divorce, which in the nineteenth century was still regarded by much of society as scandalous and shameful, and which Howells utilized as the resolution of his first major novel, A Modern Instance. This was not a “divorce novel” per se, as was maintained by several of Howells’s shocked contemporaries, but in an era when “they married and lived happily ever after” was a fictional norm, the divorce of Bartley and Marcia Hubbard was quite unpalatable. Given the situation of the characters, however, the breakup was inevitable—in a word, realistic. As William M. Gibson explains in his excellent introduction to the Riverside edition of A Modern Instance (1957), the story apparently germinated when Howells saw an impressive performance of Euripides’ Medea in Boston in the spring of 1875, and in fact the working title of the novel was The New Medea. The novel’s genesis and working title are significant, for the story’s femaleprotagonist harbors a passion that is both overpowering and destructive.
Marcia Gaylord, the only child of Squire Gaylord and his self-effacing wife, Miranda, grows up in Equity, Maine, in an era when the state’s once-impressive commercial prominence has all but decayed. Her domineering but indulgent father and her ineffectual mother have failed to mold Marcia’s personality in a positive way, and this lack of a strong character, interacting with an environment caught in economic, cultural, political, and spiritual decline, compels Marcia to leave Equity while rendering her utterly unequipped to deal with the outside world. Not surprisingly, she becomes enamored of the first attractive young man to happen her way: Bartley Hubbard, editor of the newspaper of Equity. Superficially, Hubbard has all the earmarks of the hero of a romantic novel: Orphaned young, he is intelligent enough to have succeeded at a country college, and with his education, charm, and diligence, he seems well on his way to a career in law. There, however, the Lincolnesque qualities end. Ambitious, manipulative, shrewd, unscrupulous, and self-centered, Bartley is the worst possible husband for the shallow Marcia, and after a courtship rife with spats, jealousy, and misunderstandings (even the short-lived engagement is the result of misinterpreted behavior), the ill-matched pair elope and settle in Boston.
The remainder of the novel is an analysis of the characters of Marcia and Bartley as they are revealed by the social, professional, and economic pressures of Boston, and a concomitant study of the deterioration of their marriage. Marcia is motivated by her sexual passion for Bartley and her deep emotional attachment to her father—an attachment so intense that she names her daughter after him and attempts to force Bartley into following in his footsteps as a lawyer. Locked into the roles of wife and daughter, Marcia has no separate identity, no concrete values, no sense of purpose. As Marcia struggles with her disordered personality, Bartley’s becomes only too clear: His success as a newspaperman is the direct result of his being both shrewd in his estimation of the low level of popular taste, and unscrupulous in finding material and assuming (or disavowing) responsibility for it.
Bartley’s foil is a native Bostonian and former classmate, Ben Halleck. A wealthy man without being spoiled, a trained attorney too moralistic to practice law, and a good judge of character who refuses to use that talent for ignoble ends, Halleck is all that Bartley Hubbard could have been under more favorable circumstances. Even so, Ben does not fit into the world of nineteenth century America: As is graphically symbolized by his being disabled, Ben cannot find a satisfying occupation, a meaningful religion, or a warm relationship with a woman. In fact, it is Howells’s trenchant indictment of the social, economic, and spiritual problems of nineteenth century America that not a single character in A Modern Instance is psychically whole. To further compound his difficulties, Ben loves Marcia, having adored her for years after noticing her from afar as a school girl in Maine. In his efforts to aid her by lending money to Bartley and pressuring her to stand by her husband, Ben unwittingly contributes to Bartley’s abandonment of Marcia, to her resultant emotional crisis, and to the devastating divorce in Indiana.
Carefully avoiding the traditional happy ending, Howells completes his story with a scene of human wreckage: Bartley, unscrupulous newspaperman to the end, is shot to death by a disgruntled reader in Arizona; Squire Gaylord, emotionally destroyed by defending his daughter in the divorce suit, dies a broken man; Ben, unsuccessful as a schoolteacher in Uruguay, flees to backwoods Maine to preach; and Marcia returns to the narrow world of Equity, her beauty and spirit long vanished. Interesting, complex, and bitter, A Modern Instance so strained Howells’s emotional and physical well-being that he suffered a breakdown while writing it. The “falling off” of energy and style in the second part of the novel, noted by many commentators, may be attributed to the breakdown as well as to the related stress engendered by the serious psychosomatic illness of his beloved daughter, Winny. It should be borne in mind, however, that the novel’s singularly unhappy ending cannot be attributed to either crisis; the book’s conclusion, planned from the story’s inception, was itself meant to be a commentary on a nation buffeted by spiritual, social, and economic change.
The Rise of Silas Lapham
On a level with A Modern Instance is Howells’s best-known novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham....
(The entire section is 2881 words.)