A Modern Instance

IT must be counted in favor of the serial publication of a novel that the author is enabled to secure a certain momentum of interest on the part of his readers, correspondent to the momentum of his story; and if his power lies in a strong conception of character, which he must discover by a multitude of minute touches, then he is more than ever favored by the slow process of monthly publication. Time is given for the steady sinking of the story into the minds of readers, until the conclusion, which has been the author’s from the beginning, becomes at last, and only at last, inevitable to them. On the other hand, the author, having the advantage of this leisurely development, is tempted to elaborate his details unduly, and to trust less to the power of selected and typical situations than to the familiarity with his characters which he has permitted. If A Modern Instance1 had been published only in book form, it is possible that its readers, becoming early interested in the fortunes of its chief characters, would have leaped quickly to the conclusion, and have been somewhat dissatisfied with the absence of many dramatic situations. In that event, they might have carried away the impression that the author was unnecessarily at pains in portraying the features of people whom one does not care to number among his intimate associates. It is not impossible that Mr. Howells himself, had he written the novel for publication in book form only, would have moved more swiftly to the end, and given a bolder, freer sketch of the lives which detained him ; yet this supposes a somewhat radical change in his art, and, although A Modern Instance does give sign of dramatic vigor, its charm and its merit lie in other qualities.

Looking at the book as it now stands, we are even more aware than when reading it by parts how much good writing has gone to the presentation of phases of life which would have been perfectly intelligible to the reader if they had been treated more concisely. It is a dull imagination which needs all the details which Mr. Howells has given of cheap boarding-houses and restaurants, and of the internal economy of a newspaper establishment. The details are clever, and there are touches which make it unnecessary for writers on such matters hereafter to do anything but quote from this book; yet one becomes impatient of an art which employs so fine a pencil upon that which is ignoble and that which has inherent dignity. If life be the sum of little things, — and there were no great outward events in this chronicle, — it is yet the business of art, when portraying life, to choose that which is significant, not merely that which is characteristic. The amusing scene, for instance, at the logging camp enjoys a fullness of treatment out of proportion to its importance in the novel.

Nevertheless, — and we repeat that the serial publication was hereby an advantage both to author and reader, — the intimate acquaintance permitted with types of character from which we turn away with irritation was necessary to a full appreciation of the final issue; for that issue, with its lines running back to the first words of the novel, is the most serious of any which this writer has set before him in his work. The book is his greatest achievement, not in an artistic, but in an ethical apprehension. It is the equilibrium of ethical and artistic powers which gives the greatest momentum to literature, and the movement of Mr. Howells has been toward the larger and profounder art. A Foregone Conclusion was a finer product, but its ethical interest was slighter. The Undiscovered Country dealt with the counterfeit of a noble belief, and was ineffective because there was no positive result. The art which chooses an inferior material in which to cast its forms must not complain if the forms do not last and are not valued. A Modern Instance shows a distinct advance in the author’s conception of the life which lies behind the novel, and the foundations are laid deeper in the heart of things.

Taken as a picture of life within certain lines, the book is no less clever than its predecessors. Its realism is as firm and its naturalism as easy. The sketches of country town life in Equity; the portraits of the old squire and his faded wife, of the humorous philosopher in the logging camp, of Mr. Witherby the journalist, whose conscience is kept in the counting-room; the touches which reveal the veneering of culture bestowed by a small college on a mean man ; the rapid outlines of a lank Western village,— these, and many more which recur as one thinks of the story, remind one that the hand has not lost its cunning. The familiar glimpses of a woman’s mind, also, when that mind is like the upper drawer in her bureau, reappear in the case of Clara, and the passages between her and her husband are new readings from the old story, which Mr. Howells tells so well.

But these things seem to be of less importance to author and reader. It is of greater consequence that, in the presentation of Marcia’s character, he has called back into fiction a powerful element, which has of late fallen into disuse. It is long since jealousy has played so important a part in a novel, and it would seem as if Mr. Howells had invested one of his women with it for the sake of reinstating an old and permanent force. Certainly, the effect is to enlist the reader’s interest in Marcia without attracting his love. The heroine has a fascination for Ben Halleck, the moral hero of the story, but so little does she engage the affection of the reader that he is occasionally obliged to remind himself of facts which account for Halleck’s infatuation; he does not himself come under her spell, and he wonders that Halleck should. The drop too much of jealousy in Marcia’s veins, which repels the reader, explains her life and action. The touch which her father applies with consummate skill, when he would persuade her to proceed against her husband, is a test of her nature, and her faithfulness to her ideal proves less powerful than her blind rage of jealousy.

What does Mr. Howells mean by introducing this animalistic quality into the composition of Marcia’s character ? Taken by itself, the quality is a savage one. Othello, with all his nobility of undeveloped nature, succumbed to the savage within him, and the savage was called forth by the disease of civilization ; for Iago, with his subtle cruelty, is the type of an over-refined and conscienceless civilization. This jealousy of Marcia stamps her as more than half wild, and the contact with Bartley Hubbard inflames the passion, because he, like Iago, represents the cruel force of an education which is the base counterfeit of a pure civilization. Each of these characters is in a measure typical of phases of life. By themselves they would simply be unpleasant individuals ; it is because we know them to express the movements of a crude and partly brutal civilization that they force themselves upon our notice. We do not think that Mr. Howells was merely endeavoring, in his creation of Marcia, to reinforce his familiar conception of fickle woman by the introduction of a powerful passion. He instinctively saw the woman created, not by himself, but by the life out of which she grew; and the reader is just as aware as Olive Halleck is that Marcia is out of place in the society where she is found, not because she is provincial, but because she has not yet emerged from the elemental condition of womanhood.

What such a woman would have been had she married Ben Halleck is an interesting problem, but it is not that presented in A Modern Instance. She is to be developed, not by the gracious influence of a noble nature enfolding and exalting hers, but by the harsh storm which shipwrecks her, and leaves her on the cold island of a solitary life, out of which has gone the mockery of love. It is not the design of the novel to publish her after-life, but the reader may wisely conceive it as fashioned by her child rather than by a second husband. Meanwhile, this woman, with all her capacity for love and all her rude elemental grace, is joined to a man who is not capable of being redeemed by her, and therefore, though he does not and cannot ruin her soul, drags her happiness down the steep into which he plunges.

If Marcia is more than an individual, eccentric woman ; if she is the product of a life where religion has run to seed, and men and women are living by traditions which have faded into a copy-book morality, Bartley Hubbard represents a larger and more positive constituency. It is not altogether displeasing to us to see our friend, the smart, self-made man, reach the end for which he appears to have made himself. There is a singular consistency in the development of this character; its good points are not omitted, and Mr. Howells allows himself even a kindly tone, now and then toward his infirmities. When Bartley takes out his pocket-book to reassure Mrs. Nash, and the author says, in passing, “ He had a boyish satisfaction in letting her see it was well filled,” we note the delicate turn in the word “boyish” by which Mr. Howells relents for a moment in his merciless work of unclothing the man’s soul. So, too, the humorous twinkle in the brute from time to time saves him from being utterly loathsome ; and the lapses into affection for his wife, when her passion draws him for a few moments out of his den of selfishness, are not only redeeming touches, but they are truthful, and make one believe all the more surely in the pit into which the wretch finally falls. Easy is the descent to Avernus, but it is not every novelist who has the art to show those occasional futile steps which arrest the descent.

It would be unjust to regard A Modern Instance as a tract against the divorce laws. We pointed out in our review of Dr. Breen’s Practice that Mr. Howell’s is a novelist, and not an advocate or opponent of medical education for women. It is the merit of this book that the characters are typical characters, and the drama of their life must take place under modern conditions. But those conditions had in themselves partly created the characters moving among them. Bartley Hubbard begins to allow himself to dream of an escape from a bondage which fetters him when his whole being is moving toward a lawless freedom, and his dream is not only the ugly, unconscious action of a corrupt mind, it is the suggestion of a rotten social condition. The book is not even incidentally a plea for stricter divorce laws; it is a demonstration of a state of society of which divorce laws are the index.

We have said that it is difficult to familiarize one’s self with the infatuation which Ben Halleck has for Marcia; and yet the deeper one gets into the spirit of the book, the more clearly he sees that the key-stone of the whole structure is in the relation of these two characters to each other. Marcia is a pagan, but she has seen in Halleck the light of Christianity, and she turns to it as to the one steady, unfailing guide. It is Halleck’s misery and salvation at once. His own life, bereft of its complement of being, expresses the conflict eternally going on in the soul which loves light rather than darkness. It was a fine thought of the author that led him to make the last appearance of Halleck, in the reader’s sight, to be that of a Calvinist clergyman. In no other way could he so signally have emphasized the transitional agony of this man’s life. For we do not see the close with him, any more than we do with Marcia. With each the lesson of life still goes on, but the substantial victory remains with Halleck. We know with the most sorrowful certainty that if he were to fall there would be no light left for her ; and his life and hers can have no issue in any cheap happiness.

Have we been drawn into too serious a mood in thus treating A Modern Instance? We answer that it is a parable, as all great works of art are parables ; and in so regarding it one must go through it to the life on which it rests, or else he can have nothing more to say than that here is a collection of disagreeable people whom he would gladly forget. He would find small enjoyment in the novel who asked of it a gratification of his hedonism; he might take malicious satisfaction in seeing virtue limp through the story with the help of a stick. But until Mr. Howells gives us what we may fairly expect, a novel as profound as this, but with the joyousness of hope, we may well be content with a book which is the weightiest novel of the day.

  1. A Modern Instance. A Novel. By WILLIAM D. HOWELLS. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co. 1882.