"A Modern Instance" is a novel written by William D. Howells. The novel was serialized in Century Magazine in eleven installments between December 1881 and October 1882; it was published in book form in Boston by James R. Osgood and Company in October 1882.Howells got the idea for the novel after he saw a performance of "Medea" in Boston in 1875.When he witnessed on the stage the recreation of Medea's love for Jason, her husband who betrays her, and how her love changes to hatred, as Howells himself said, "the novel was born."Up until the time of publication Howells continued to refer to his work in progress as The New Medea. Howells considered "A Modern Instance"his finest novel.
The novel begins in the village of Equity, Maine. A village where:
" winter was full half the year. The snow began at Thanksgiving, and fell snow upon snow till Fast Day, thawing between the storms, and packing harder and harder against the break-up in the spring, when it covered the ground in solid levels three feet high, and lay heaped in drifts, that defied the sun far into May."
The villagers are called "captives of winter"and watch out their windows where "every movement on the street was precious to them."In this first page the "movement" happens to be our hero and heroine Bartley Hubbard and Marcia Gaylord going down the street in a cutter, "gay with red-lined robes". Bartley takes Marcia to the church socialble, and he brings her back to her father's house in the "moonlight silence." We are told about Marcia that:
"her beauty was of the kind that coming years would only ripen and enrich; at thirty she would be even handsomer than at twenty..."
Marcia is the daughter of Squire and Mrs. Gaylord.The Squire is the town lawyer and his wife seldom went out of her own door.Marcia is the apple of her father's eye and he has spoiled her.
Bartley is the editor of the Equity Free Press.Bartley's life had been quite different from Marcia's life.He was an orphan, dependent on his own exertions for a livelihood,he had entered college with difficulty, and with heavy conditions.We are told that:
" The fact of his smartness had been affirmed and established in the strongest manner by the authorities of the college at which he was graduated..." however; "One, indeed, still felt it a duty to call attention to the fact that the college authorities said nothing of the young man's moral characteristics in a letter dwelling so largely upon his intellectual qualifications."
This is one early clue as to Bartley's true character.
It is quickly obvious that Marcia is madly in love (or thinks she is) with Bartley, and Bartley is definitely not in love with Marcia, although he is fond of her.He seems to be fond of women in general though, and Marcia is extremely jealous of them all.Bartley's feelings towards Marcia are given here;
"Bartley was still free as air; but if he could once make up his mind to settle down in a hole like Equity, he could have her by turning his hand."
Although it seems to me that this relationship can go absolutely no where, Marcia and Bartley do become engaged at which time "The house seemed too little for Marcia's happiness."However, almost immediately something goes wrong when Bartley and his assistant have a fight over one of the office girls, Hannah Morrison, and Bartley's assistant is seriously injured. Marcia when she finds out breaks the engagement, not because of his violence, but because of Hannah.Because of this Bartley is asked to leave the newspaper, and he leaves town.
However, Marcia finds that she cannot live without Bartley, and even though she is hurt because of the other girl, she leaves her home and follows Bartley.They marry and continue on to Boston.I wonder if their marriage would have run more smooth from this point if they would have remained in Equity, but they aren't in Equity and I doubt it would have helped.From this point on the book centers on the quarrels and reconciliations of this couple, and there are alot of them.Marcia is so absorbed in Bartley that it is annoying, if not for him, it is for the rest of us.She is extremely jealous and just a woman talking to Bartley throws her into a rage.
Sometimes during the novel you feel as if Bartley is a great criminal, as low as you could ever be; but really he isn't.He is just too handsome, too shallow, and way, way too selfish.But there was good in him, it seems as if he was really a good natured man; if he would have had the right influences in his life things may have turned out differently.However, as the book goes on he falls lower and lower, Marcia is absolutely no help; she seems to spend her time either gazing at Bartley with admiration and devotion in her eyes hanging on his every word, or slamming doors and locking them because she saw another woman speak to him at a party.
Here are some of the most memorable lines for me anyway:
"He still clung to his old-fashioned deistical opinions; but he thought no worse of a man for not holding them; he did not deny that a man might be a Christian, and still be a very good man."
"Well, I shouldn't begin to plough for corn just yet," replied Kinney. "It's curious," he went on, "to see how anxious we are to have a thing over, it don't much matter what it is, whether it's summer or winter. I suppose we'd feel different if we wa'n't sure there was going to be another of 'em. I guess that's one reason why the Lord concluded not to keep us clearly posted on the question of another life. If it wa'n't for the uncertainty of the thing, there are a lot of fellows like you that wouldn't stand it here a minute. Why, if we had a dead sure thing of over-the-river,—good climate, plenty to eat and wear, and not much to do,—I don't believe any of us would keep Darling Minnie waiting,—well, a _great_ while"
"But he was restored to reason when the composer sat down at the piano and played, amid the hush that falls on society at such times, something from Beethoven, and again something of his own, which was so like Beethoven that Beethoven himself would not have known the difference.."
"Halleck turned. "What could be a worse hell than marriage without love?" he demanded, fiercely.
"Love without marriage," said Atherton".
I liked the book, I'll read it again someday.For me it was definitely a four star novel.