One of the most influential authors of the late nineteenth century, and a former editor of the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine, William Dean Howells wrote more than fifty novels, as well as plays, memoirs, and poetry collections. Opposed to the sentimentalism, contrived heroism, and theatrical endings in fiction, he developed a literary style based on unvarnished realism. This unique genre is brilliantly depicted in A Modern Instance, a novel that helped Howells’ career skyrocket and is considered to be his masterpiece.
A cornerstone of American realism, it contrasts old and new worlds to explore social and moral issues involving family life and the traditional roles of women. Centering a novel on the theme of divorce was a radical concept in 1882, so this portrait of a failing marriage occupies a transitional moment in literary history. It opens in Equity, Maine, with a seemingly perfect love story. Ambitious journalist Bartley Hubbard and insecure Marcia Gaylord elope and move to Boston with great plans for their future. But Bartley’s self-indulgence and Marcia’s jealousy prove to be a combustible mix of character flaws that threatens to destroy the marriage—even after the birth of their child. A journey through each character’s thoughts, feelings, and reveries, A Modern Instance winds its way around our hearts, promoting dialogue about the nature of marriage and the changing face of American society.