Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Modern Instance - William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells (1837-1920)

A Modern Instance was Howells first major novel, published in 1882, and beginning a prolific career that would span over 22 years.

His thesis is an exploration of causality. "The effects follow their causes. In some sort they chose misery for themselves - we make our own hell in this life and the next..."

Unlike The Rise of Silas Lapham, which jumps right into the story pulling the reader into the caverns of Lapham's inner sanctum, A Modern Instance, comparatively has a bit of a rough start. The beginning pages of description had almost a House of Seven Gables feel to it...and I have basically no idea what that book was about because I kept getting lost in rooms filled with clutter, each item needing an endless individual description.

Finally we meet Bartley Hubbard, taking some liberties with Marcia Gaylord, after both have come in from a long ride through the snowy dusk. Bartley, besides being the most loathsome character I have come across in early realist literature, is also a bit of a flirt. And when I say a bit of a flirt, I mean an unabashed, avaricious, entitled pig.

As he makes his departure, he kisses Marcia, an act I'm assuming bordered on a level of promiscuity in the 1880's. Marcia, filled with and evening of flattery and romance heads up to her room encountering her father on the stairs, who has observed the shameful performance below and asks if they are engaged. Marcia, filled with shame runs to her room to wallow in the grief only uncertainty of requited love can bring.

The next evening when Bartley makes his appearance for another "sleigh ride" Marcia quickly proposes, remedying the immediate problem and throwing herself headlong into a far greater abyss. Although seemingly requited (Although I'm sure Bartley just wanted to get into her pants) Marcia carries the weight of their love. "The spectacle of a love affair in which the woman gives more of her heart than the man gives of his is so pitiable that we are apt to attribute a kind of merit to her (umm...nope) as if it were a voluntary self-sacrifice for her to love more than her share."

I'm not sure I entirely agree with Howells on the above point, but it certainly makes for a pitiable heroine and within 2 minutes of Marcia's proposal Bartley is off flirting with Hannah Morrison,and  a new, scarier character trait of Marcia's is revealed. She is a tinder box of self-engulfing jealousy, needing only the slightest provocation to erupt into soul crippling flames. 

So our hero is a rakish lout and our heroine is a proud, jealous, equally entitled adolescent. "She's proud, and when a proud girl makes a fool of herself about a fellow, it's a matter of life and death with her. She can't help herself. She lets go of everything."

This does not bode well.

The first few hundred pages felt like being time warped back into all the things I miss most about high school. (And by miss I mean not miss.) The 4 popular guys (it was a small high school) strutting themselves off like Peafowl, flirting with anyone with two legs and certain preferred anatomy. It was somewhat sickening to watch in high school and it was pretty painful to sit through 200 pages of.

Bartely, knows he's good looking, smart and has the sense of ability and immortality only the young and semi privileged can truly know. Although he was an orphan, because of his good looks aptitude for learning, he was petted and taken care of better than if he had been raised by his parents.

Marcia is also a beauty, but her looks are somewhat diminished my the fact that she's stark raving mad.    She only has eyes for Bartley, and despite his constant abuse and endless flirtations, she manages to take on the responsibility for his actions apologizing quickly for driving him to do whatever base and reprobate thing he comes up with next.

Yet - as a realist, Howells believes we all have personal responsibility for our actions. And although Marcia eventually begins to realize the disfigured relationship her marriage has become, her self realization doesn't bring forth pity but rather a strange type of loathing. She is purposefully naive - buttressing her naivete about her so that she might continue to live in a dream. A dream where she is loved. A dream where Bartely is everything she proselytized him to be. A dream where despite disagreements, commitment is stronger than the emotions of love.

Eventually the hell they build for themselves spills into the lives of those around them. And the reader is left to ponder the ethics and morality of contemporary civilization.

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