Today, divorce, which saw a remarkable increase between the

Today, divorce has become a common cultural
and historical concern and
“an American way of life” (Whitehead). This essay studies the relationship
between divorce and love as presented in numerous realist literary works from the
turn of the century, including A Modern
Instance by William Dean Howells, Marry
Me: A Romance by John Updike, and The
Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. Closely reviewing these novels, I examine
love as well as divorce, which saw a remarkable increase between the years 1880
and 1920. Moving the topic of divorce to the forefront illuminates love in real
life and helps us understand the ways in which these realists were actively
participating 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-fashioned
subject of love or romance is presented with a sort of sympathetic disdain,
creating a tension in these texts rendered thematically by the disruptive
subject of divorce and informed by contradictory beautiful and social
priorities that shape an analysis of the present and the past on which it
depends. A closer glimpse at divorce in American literature is captivating
because 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 formal
function in the development of literature through each era. Love and marriage have
been pivotal to the plot and shape of literary works, serving as its comedic
finale after numerous obstacles, as well as serving as the tragic, romantic
framework for adultery. With its rising incidence in literature, divorce seems
fundamentally essential to the study of romantic, realistic and modern American

Divorce has been slighted in many histories in American literature.
The neglect of divorce in American literature may be a lasting preference
against the realist writings of manners that has been fostered by the contests
yet highly influential, romance thesis suggesting that romance is the form of
“canonical” American novels. The theory of romance is the creation of a chain
of command in which romance associated with stories of pursuit and the philosophical
works by such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, occupies the
top ranks, while the novel, associated with manners and realism in such authors
as Henry James and William Dean Howells occupies lower ranks. Divorce cast as a
domestic theme has often been considered more appropriate to realism than the
metaphysical concerns of romance. However, in my research I found the subject
of divorce bridges the romantic and realistic literature of manners because it
is at once romantic in its invocation of adventure, self-fulfillment and
idealism, and realist in its social, domestic and material consequences.

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Perhaps, the dynamic between romance and realism characterizes
American literature more so than either one alone. Because of the tension it
embodies, 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 pressure
between individual freedom and social obligation. Moreover, divorce signifies separation
starting over and parting with the past. This detachment from the past offers divorce
and consequent layer of modernity. This also characterizes the formation of an
American national identity. Finally, in comparing the demands of society and
individual desire, divorce also uncovers the mediums of identity that form an
American individual: interconnecting, conflicting, and sometimes balancing,
ideals about nationality, gender, ethnicity, and social class. Therefore, in
the search for an identifiably American literary subject in the depiction of
divorce, many authors suggest that divorce offers itself to the development of
a modernistic “American” form. In particular, William Dean Howells calls for an
American realism in his divorce novel A
Modern Instance (1881). Thus, how the idea of divorce offers itself to an
American literary form is my main focus.

As a realist, Howells was distancing himself from traditional
literature in that artistically he was attempting to do something original. This
is seen in his movement away from the traditional love plot, which often ended
with a happily-ever-after marriage. As Freeman notes, “marriage has been
pivotal 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 romantic
framework for adultery” (x). In A Modern
Instance, Howells disassembles the fundamental marriage that he presents us
with, giving a theme to his distaste for predictable and ideal

Howells’ aspiration to show life as it is, rather than life
as it should be, to focus on the present and on the ordinary everyday rather
than the ideal or fortunate, accounts for his subsequent progress away from
lasting literary forms such as the romance and sentimental novel. He felt that
such 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, which
it behooves us to know and understand, that we may deal justly with ourselves
and with one another” (Howells, Criticism
and Fiction 47). It is in this passage that he adopts a democratic standpoint
as he calls for truth and justice in fiction and in life. He observed realism
as “democracy in literature,” which led him to critique the romance for “its
enslavement to past conventions, its idealization of subject matter, and its
aristocratic pretensions” (Kaplan 18, 16). As Kaplan observes, “romance becomes
a catchword in his lexicon for an elitist conception of culture as the
inherited and well-guarded property of the upper classes” (16). It is a form
that Howells came to connect with “the leisured gentleman of letters,” a figure
who, in the larger culture, was increasingly and pejoratively being associated
with the feminine, and consequently with leisure and consumption (Kaplan 16).

The subject of divorce provided Howells the opportunity to
show himself as a serious-minded author, who focused on matters of social
significance. With his democratic philosophy, Howells wanted to disturb a
class-bound order that hindered the growth of democracy in the same way he
wanted to put a truthful spin on the usual love plot. Howells recognized that
divorce 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 increasingly
challenged by an emerging ideal of companionate marriage – a union based on a
partnership of friends and equals” (55). The new “ideal” stressing “partnership,”
encouraged the commonality that Howells strove for in real life and in
literature. However, as Riley recognizes, it was an ideal and Howells, as a
realist, was “skeptical of idealism in any stripe” (Morgan 24).

Howells ties Halleck’s emotional weakness to his romantic urges—urges
that Howells observed as possibly dangerous fiction and reality. These are
impulses that make themselves clear early on and stop him from completely
sympathizing with the character. When introduced to Halleck, we discover that
he has had his heart fixed on an “unknown charmer,”—a woman in a picture that
he has not met (Howells, A Modern
Instance 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 of
her beauty but because she was pure image, unattainable and unknowable” (Freeman
32). As Marcia becomes a reality, he persistently clings to the idealistic
image. Howells implies that this ultimately causes his downfall. For example,
when Halleck originally meets Marcia’s child, he has an inner vicious reaction
from which he never completely recovers. Howell describes how he

“looked at her with strong
self-disgust . . .. There is something in a young man’s ideal of women at
once passionate and ascetic, so fine that any words are too gross for it. The
event which intensified the interest of his mother and sisters in Marcia had
abashed Halleck; when she came so proudly to show her baby to them all, it
seemed to him like a mockery of his pity for her captivity to the love that
profaned her. . . . Little by little his compassion adjusted itself to the
new conditions; it accepted the child as an element of her misery in the
future, when she must realize the hideous deformity of her marriage. His
prophetic feeling of this, and of her inaccessibility to human help here and
hereafter, made him sometimes afraid of her, but all the more severely he
exacted of his ideal of her that she should not fall beneath the tragic dignity
of her fate through any levity of her own. Now, at her innocent laugh, a subtle
irreverence, which he was not able to exorcise, infused itself into his sense of
her.” (Howells, A Modern Instance

Here, we watch as Halleck’s intense emotional struggle
begins 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, he
indicates that “self-disgust” is a realistic modification to these idealizing
tendencies. However, Howells displays Halleck as being too fragile to act
inversely. Halleck sympathizes Marcia for “her captivity to the love that
profaned her” and is steadfast that “she should not fall” by anything she has
done, in doing so, revealing his loyalty to an older code suggesting that
manhood means acting as protector. However, Marcia remains faithful to her
husband, a quality that Halleck finds appealing, further considering that she
stays in a marriage that he deems a “deformity.” Halleck worships Marcia,
putting her on a pedestal with “a subtle irreverence” attribute of
old-fashioned Victorian ideology. Thus, in a parallel move, Howells pervades
this scene with a delicate analysis of Halleck’s views by claiming the
melodramatic dialect that we might find sentimental or romantic, which suggests
that idealistic visions such as these can have damaging effects. To better
demonstrate this point, he offers a glance of the potential outcome that
literature can have on the audience, at the same time isolating himself from
Halleck—the romantic and idealistic—and the type of literature that he regarded
as harmful for its idealism.


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