Places: The Bulwark

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1946

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1890 to the mid-1920’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedThornbrough

Thornbrough. Bulwark, TheHome of the Barnes family near Dukla, Pennsylvania. The novel’s main character, Solon Barnes, is a native of Maine, where his father farmed and had a modest business in town until he moved the family to Pennsylvania to aid his widowed sister-in-law. His family soon occupies Thornbrough, a decrepit pre-Civil War home along a country byway. Restoration of the house to its former elegance prompts reflection upon the spiritual legitimacy of material comfort, prosperity, and wealth. Because Quaker belief endorses simplicity, not merely in dress but also in living arrangements, the restoration of Thornbrough is acceptable to the family only because they can view it as an act of stewardship rather than one of material indulgence.

Theodore Dreiser offers descriptions of the house and its surroundings, but they are brief and often schematic. Although Solon’s father enjoys the small creek that runs through his land, he never troubles to learn where the stream ends. Later, Solon, now married to the daughter of his wealthy employer, decides to move his family from their home in town to Thornbrough, not because of its beauty, but because the children would be better protected from undesirable influences of the more worldly families in the town by living among the green fields and free spaces of the countryside. However, this countryside is threatened by development. Though located in a pastoral region, Dukla is well on its way to becoming a suburb of Philadelphia. Solon himself is able to commute to work from the Dukla station to the city in twenty-five minutes.

The transformation of countryside into suburb and the transition from the age of the horse and buggy to that of the automobile are topics of considerable significance to Dreiser. He is both an admirer of modernity and a critic of capitalism, and Solon Barnes is the vehicle of his ambivalence. Solon refuses to give up his horse and buggy and does not even contemplate buying an automobile. Even the bicycle, “with its tendency to take boys and girls into the streets and along the roads unchaperoned,” embodies an unwarranted freedom. Mobility and dispersal, hallmarks of American life, are inherently questionable: When Solon’s oldest daughter, Isobel, goes away to college, a school is found for her that has the “advantage of being not too far distant.”


*Madison. Capital city of Wisconsin. Much of The Bulwark concerns the various kinds of conformity, indifference, and rebellion toward Solon’s values and moral precepts shown by his five children. The most clearly delineated of the children is Etta, whose rejection of her father’s world has both an intellectual and a geographical element. Stimulated by the intimate friendship with a fellow student at her boarding school, Etta surreptitiously joins her friend in Madison to attend the summer session at the university there. Her friend tempts her with an account of how in the West girls are treated as though they have brains. Solon Barnes’s overnight train trip to Madison in a futile attempt to retrieve his daughter is the longest journey of his life.

*New York City

*New York City. In the autumn, Etta travels to New York City, where she intends to study and to immerse herself in the cultural life of the city. This second geographical displacement is another kind of reproach to Solon’s world. His family believes that moral peril awaits a single girl in the giant metropolis. Etta’s break from the world of rural Pennsylvania is complete when she becomes the lover of a prominent young artist, who, ironically, breaks off the relationship in order to fulfill a commission for a Western landscape.

*New Jersey

*New Jersey. A destructively climactic act of revolt on the part of Stewart, the youngest of Solon’s children, tellingly involves the automobile, which allows a further degree of unwarranted freedom. Away at a school on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Stewart is kept on a tight budget by his parents but manages to join his fashionable friends on nighttime auto trips into neighboring New Jersey, where they find amorous encounters with girls of lower social status. The young men’s misadventures end with the death of a young girl whom they rape after she is given a sedative by Stewart’s friend. Stewart, hiding a knife when he is jailed, commits suicide to avoid facing his family.

BibliographyGerber, Philip L. Theodore Dreiser Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. Provides a good introduction to the life and writing of Dreiser. In addition, the book contains a cogent chapter on The Bulwark.Hussman, Lawrence E., Jr. Dreiser and His Fiction: A Twentieth-Century Quest. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. Hussman’s thesis is that Dreiser’s beliefs changed toward the end of his life and that his fiction reflects this change. Thus, The Bulwark becomes a final sign that Dreiser was more interested in spiritual matters.Lehan, Richard. Theodore Dreiser: His World and His Novels. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. Offers thoughtful insights into Dreiser’s writing and thinking. Lehan notices a gradual shift in Dreiser’s late fiction toward communism and nature, away from technology and capitalism.Lingeman, Richard. Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey, 1908-1945. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1990. The second volume of a biography on Dreiser. Besides recounting the events in Dreiser’s life, Lingeman analyzes Dreiser’s fiction.Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976. Pizer is a recognized authority on Dreiser and naturalism. He offers both a solid reading of The Bulwark and important background information on the novel.
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