Today, divorce has become a common culturaland historical concern and”an American way of life” (Whitehead). This essay studies the relationshipbetween divorce and love as presented in numerous realist literary works from theturn of the century, including A ModernInstance by William Dean Howells, MarryMe: A Romance by John Updike, and TheCustom of the Country by Edith Wharton.
Closely reviewing these novels, I examinelove as well as divorce, which saw a remarkable increase between the years 1880and 1920. Moving the topic of divorce to the forefront illuminates love in reallife and helps us understand the ways in which these realists were activelyparticipating in and engaging with the issues of society during their era,rather than exposing life as they saw it. In each of these novels, this old-fashionedsubject of love or romance is presented with a sort of sympathetic disdain,creating a tension in these texts rendered thematically by the disruptivesubject of divorce and informed by contradictory beautiful and socialpriorities that shape an analysis of the present and the past on which itdepends. A closer glimpse at divorce in American literature is captivatingbecause love has played a central role in the history of literature as a whole.
It has been demonstrated that love has served as a complex conceptual formalfunction in the development of literature through each era. Love and marriage havebeen pivotal to the plot and shape of literary works, serving as its comedicfinale after numerous obstacles, as well as serving as the tragic, romanticframework for adultery. With its rising incidence in literature, divorce seemsfundamentally essential to the study of romantic, realistic and modern Americanliterature.Divorce has been slighted in many histories in American literature.
The neglect of divorce in American literature may be a lasting preferenceagainst the realist writings of manners that has been fostered by the contestsyet highly influential, romance thesis suggesting that romance is the form of”canonical” American novels. The theory of romance is the creation of a chainof command in which romance associated with stories of pursuit and the philosophicalworks by such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, occupies thetop ranks, while the novel, associated with manners and realism in such authorsas Henry James and William Dean Howells occupies lower ranks. Divorce cast as adomestic theme has often been considered more appropriate to realism than themetaphysical concerns of romance. However, in my research I found the subjectof divorce bridges the romantic and realistic literature of manners because itis at once romantic in its invocation of adventure, self-fulfillment andidealism, and realist in its social, domestic and material consequences.Perhaps, the dynamic between romance and realism characterizesAmerican literature more so than either one alone. Because of the tension itembodies, divorce has been particularly appealing as a symbol of an “American”personality.
Divorce is used to “brand” characters, people, and relations as “American.”Covering both romantic and realistic concern, divorce also embodies pressurebetween individual freedom and social obligation. Moreover, divorce signifies separationstarting over and parting with the past. This detachment from the past offers divorceand consequent layer of modernity. This also characterizes the formation of anAmerican national identity.
Finally, in comparing the demands of society andindividual desire, divorce also uncovers the mediums of identity that form anAmerican individual: interconnecting, conflicting, and sometimes balancing,ideals about nationality, gender, ethnicity, and social class. Therefore, inthe search for an identifiably American literary subject in the depiction ofdivorce, many authors suggest that divorce offers itself to the development ofa modernistic “American” form. In particular, William Dean Howells calls for anAmerican realism in his divorce novel AModern Instance (1881). Thus, how the idea of divorce offers itself to anAmerican literary form is my main focus.
As a realist, Howells was distancing himself from traditionalliterature in that artistically he was attempting to do something original. Thisis seen in his movement away from the traditional love plot, which often endedwith a happily-ever-after marriage. As Freeman notes, “marriage has beenpivotal to the plot and shape of the novel, serving as its comedic culmination,after a myriad of obstacles, as well as serving as the tragic and romanticframework for adultery” (x). In A ModernInstance, Howells disassembles the fundamental marriage that he presents uswith, giving a theme to his distaste for predictable and ideal”happily-ever-after.”Howells’ aspiration to show life as it is, rather than lifeas it should be, to focus on the present and on the ordinary everyday ratherthan the ideal or fortunate, accounts for his subsequent progress away fromlasting literary forms such as the romance and sentimental novel. He felt thatsuch forms “hurt because they are not true – not because they are malevolent,but because they are idle lies about human nature and the social fabric, whichit behooves us to know and understand, that we may deal justly with ourselvesand with one another” (Howells, Criticismand Fiction 47).
It is in this passage that he adopts a democratic standpointas he calls for truth and justice in fiction and in life. He observed realismas “democracy in literature,” which led him to critique the romance for “itsenslavement to past conventions, its idealization of subject matter, and itsaristocratic pretensions” (Kaplan 18, 16). As Kaplan observes, “romance becomesa catchword in his lexicon for an elitist conception of culture as theinherited and well-guarded property of the upper classes” (16). It is a formthat Howells came to connect with “the leisured gentleman of letters,” a figurewho, in the larger culture, was increasingly and pejoratively being associatedwith the feminine, and consequently with leisure and consumption (Kaplan 16).
The subject of divorce provided Howells the opportunity toshow himself as a serious-minded author, who focused on matters of socialsignificance. With his democratic philosophy, Howells wanted to disturb aclass-bound order that hindered the growth of democracy in the same way hewanted to put a truthful spin on the usual love plot. Howells recognized thatdivorce carried the potential to do both, in real life and in fiction. However,not without complications. Riley explains how, “After the American Revolution,the customary view of marriage as a patriarchal structure was increasinglychallenged by an emerging ideal of companionate marriage – a union based on apartnership of friends and equals” (55). The new “ideal” stressing “partnership,”encouraged the commonality that Howells strove for in real life and inliterature. However, as Riley recognizes, it was an ideal and Howells, as arealist, was “skeptical of idealism in any stripe” (Morgan 24).Howells ties Halleck’s emotional weakness to his romantic urges—urgesthat Howells observed as possibly dangerous fiction and reality.
These areimpulses that make themselves clear early on and stop him from completelysympathizing with the character. When introduced to Halleck, we discover thathe has had his heart fixed on an “unknown charmer,”—a woman in a picture thathe has not met (Howells, A ModernInstance 150). We later become aware that the “unknown charmer” is Marcia.The photograph serves as a “token of his ideal woman, ideal not only because ofher beauty but because she was pure image, unattainable and unknowable” (Freeman32). As Marcia becomes a reality, he persistently clings to the idealisticimage.
Howells implies that this ultimately causes his downfall. For example,when Halleck originally meets Marcia’s child, he has an inner vicious reactionfrom which he never completely recovers. Howell describes how he”looked at her with strongself-disgust . . .
. There is something in a young man’s ideal of women atonce passionate and ascetic, so fine that any words are too gross for it. Theevent which intensified the interest of his mother and sisters in Marcia hadabashed Halleck; when she came so proudly to show her baby to them all, itseemed to him like a mockery of his pity for her captivity to the love thatprofaned her. .
. . Little by little his compassion adjusted itself to thenew conditions; it accepted the child as an element of her misery in thefuture, when she must realize the hideous deformity of her marriage. Hisprophetic feeling of this, and of her inaccessibility to human help here andhereafter, made him sometimes afraid of her, but all the more severely heexacted of his ideal of her that she should not fall beneath the tragic dignityof her fate through any levity of her own. Now, at her innocent laugh, a subtleirreverence, which he was not able to exorcise, infused itself into his sense ofher.” (Howells, A Modern Instance178)Here, we watch as Halleck’s intense emotional strugglebegins to take shape. Marcia’s baby is a reality that wounds his moral value,provoking his own “self-disgust” at his reaction.
By showing him like this, heindicates that “self-disgust” is a realistic modification to these idealizingtendencies. However, Howells displays Halleck as being too fragile to actinversely. Halleck sympathizes Marcia for “her captivity to the love thatprofaned her” and is steadfast that “she should not fall” by anything she hasdone, in doing so, revealing his loyalty to an older code suggesting thatmanhood means acting as protector. However, Marcia remains faithful to herhusband, a quality that Halleck finds appealing, further considering that shestays in a marriage that he deems a “deformity.” Halleck worships Marcia,putting her on a pedestal with “a subtle irreverence” attribute ofold-fashioned Victorian ideology.
Thus, in a parallel move, Howells pervadesthis scene with a delicate analysis of Halleck’s views by claiming themelodramatic dialect that we might find sentimental or romantic, which suggeststhat idealistic visions such as these can have damaging effects. To betterdemonstrate this point, he offers a glance of the potential outcome thatliterature can have on the audience, at the same time isolating himself fromHalleck—the romantic and idealistic—and the type of literature that he regardedas harmful for its idealism.