Places: A Modern Instance

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1882

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedEquity

Equity. Modern Instance, ASmall town in Maine in which the novel opens on a picturesque winter scene. The town initially seems attractive and in harmony with its natural surroundings. However, several variant meanings of the word “equity” suggests that W. D. Howells had ambivalent thoughts about the town. Equity is a place that fosters the basically simple and provincial outlook of a woman like Marcia Gaylord and constrains an ambitious and unscrupulous man like Bartley Hubbard, whom she marries. Human nature is not morally more pure in Equity; it merely faces less varied temptations there. Bartley is the kind of person who takes mean advantage of others wherever he is, but Equity, where transgressions of laws and mores quickly become generally known, offers only limited scope for his selfishness and arrogant disregard of others. This conservative community also imposes restrictions on him as a journalist and seeker of an interesting social life. In short, Equity cannot hold Bartley, and because Marcia is infatuated with him, she departs also, although it is the sort of place that suits her temperament.

Logging camp

Logging camp. Simple place, close to nature, where Bartley visits Kinney, a man of gentle nature and ingenuous admiration for the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Bartley himself acknowledges that only a person in what he calls “first-rate spiritual condition” can safely commune so closely with nature, but he is far less interested in nature than in the sort of “copy” Kinney, the camp’s cook, can provide him. This man, at home in such surroundings, later becomes the easiest of all Bartley Hubbard’s victims.


*Boston. New England’s largest city, where Bartley takes Marcia after they marry. At first, she is overwhelmed by the fixtures and furnishings of the first-class hotel at which they stay but is appalled by the expense, when she learns of it. Soon they find more modest quarters and settle into big-city life. To Bartley’s friend from college days, Ben Halleck, Boston is “more authentic” and more “municipal” than any other modern city.

Boston is a city of multiple newspapers and thus of numerous outlets for Bartley’s writing. Bartley readily “takes on” the city, as one editor remarks, but Marcia remains an uncomfortable country person. When they attend the theater, the unsophisticated Marcia cannot take it in; Bartley enjoys it, but in the superficial way of a man unattuned to aesthetic values yet happy to be among the “swells” who patronize such entertainments. Boston cannot change either Bartley or Marcia, as Ben Halleck’s sister learns when she tries unsuccessfully to create a social life for them.

After Bartley eventually deserts his wife, another friend obtains another “country” woman to stay with Marcia and their infant son as the only solace available to this inflexibly countrified woman. Not even Marcia’s father, a crafty attorney in his own small town, can be of much service to her when he visits, for he loses his identity in the big city.

It is clear that Howells, who spent a considerable portion of his own literary and journalistic career in Boston, did not regard it as a city of sin. The Hallecks live a highly civilized life there, but both Hubbards, in their distinct ways, are immune to civilities. Bartley cannily profits from the weaknesses of Boston’s honest newspapermen and sells tasteless material to less respectable ones. Through much of the nineteenth century Boston had reigned as the literary capital of the United States. But by the 1870’s it was becoming a commercial center, the implication being that a man like Bartley Hubbard could not have thrived there in the time when Kinney’s hero Emerson had lived while composing his earliest works.

BibliographyCady, Edwin H. “The Chief American Realist: 1881-1885.” In The Road to Realism: The Early Years, 1837-1885, of William Dean Howells. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1956. Places the novel in the broader context of Howells’ life and work while offering a general critical overview of the novel.Smith, Geoffrey D. “Bartley Hubbard and Behavioral Art in William Dean Howells’s A Modern Instance.” Studies in American Fiction 7 (1979): 83-91. Explores Howells’ techniques for depicting psychological processes in the novel.Spangler, George M. “The Idea of Degeneration in American Fiction, 1880-1940.” English Studies 70, no. 5 (October, 1989): 407-435. Discusses the novel’s place in American literature and identifies it as beginning a reversal of the traditional theme of regeneration. According to Spangler, Bartley Hubbard’s degeneration paves the way for a new type of character, one that dominates much of the great fiction of succeeding years.Tavernier-Courbin, Jacqueline. “Towards the City: Howells’ Characterization in A Modern Instance.” Modern Fiction Studies 24, no. 1 (Spring, 1978): 111-127. Examines the novel in the light of the conventions of nineteenth century popular fiction. According to Tavernier-Courbin, Howells uses setting and character in the novel to undermine typical romantic stereotypes.Wright, Ellen F. “Given Bartley, Given Marcia: A Reconsideration of Howells’ A Modern Instance.” Texas Studies in Language and Literature 23, no. 2 (Summer, 1981): 214-231. By examining the many married couples in the novel, Wright argues that Howells does not intend to indict either American culture in general or the institution of marriage in particular.
Categories: Places