Does A Modern Instance champion or disdain divorce?
A Modern Instance is a complex novel with an engrossing plot-line and a subtext of ideas that make it relevant, not only as a source for the moral questions of the Nineteenth century, but also for dilemmas faced today. One of the major questions that it raises is how far a person should remain true to marriage vows when the other partner has flagrantly broken them. To put it simply, should the heroine of the novel, Marcia, divorce her unfaithful husband, Bartley, who has abandoned her in Boston in order to seek adventures and freedom in the West? The novel asks whether an absolute or relative morality is most virtuous and/or most practical in a world in which people like Bartley are all too common.
The dichotomy between “championing” and “disdaining” is not as simple as the title of this essay suggests. It seems clear that Howell’s sees the strength in traditional virtues while realizing that at times they need to be discarded. Thus in some ways he disdains divorce as a general precept while championing the need for it within extremely negative marriages. If one party to a marriage abandons it in favor of freedom, then does the marriage really exist?
In the initial stages of the marriage it seem as though A Modern Instance champions the ideals of domestic harmony within marriage almost at any cost. So while Bartley acts in a feckless and lazy manner, refusing to pursue a career in law even though his education was paid for him, it seems as though Marcia will always forgive him. In this sense Howells paints a rather traditional portrait of “love is blind” and suggests that a marriage can work even under the most difficult of circumstances in which one party to it really is not worth much. The portrait of their marriage for much of the book implicitly disdains divorce as Marcia forgives Bartley everything. Forgiveness, even if it stems from either stupidity or blind love, is apparently better than any consideration of divorce.
The idea that marriage is kind of Elyria that cannot never be bettered is exemplified by the important sub-plot involving Ben Halleck. Halleck went to college with Bartley and knows that he is not to be trusted. Halleck discovers, to his complete horror, that he loves Marcia, and ends up lending money to Bartley that he knows will never be returned as a kind of penance. If ‘love’, in its truest form, rather than the convention of marriage were more important within the world that Howells is portraying, then Marcia and Halleck might at least think of starting an affair. But this does not happen. Instead, Halleck imposes exile on himself, constantly tortures himself with the shame of loving another man’s wife and eventually becomes a church minister.
The idea of divorce is a last resort, an absolute last resort to many of the characters in the book. The fact that Marcia and Bartley are married gives their relationship an infinitely higher worth to conventional characters such as Halleck than any he could have with the beautiful woman. Yet the society in which they all live is rapidly moving more towards Bartley’s rather casual view of such matters rather than Halleck’s seriousness. The first time the word “divorce” is mentioned in the book occurs in the following manner:
“It’s just so with the newspapers, too,” said Bartley. “Some newspapers
used to stand out against publishing murders, and personal gossip
and divorce trials, There ain’t a newspaper that pretends to keep
anyways up with the times, now, that don’t do it! The public want
spice, and they will have it!”
While Bartley is the putative “evil character” in the novel, he is, at least to the modern reader, one of more engaging and charming characters in a book that often seems to rely upon stereotypes. Perhaps Bartley is the most attractive because he is the most modern. Yet Howell’s himself is clearly condemning this casual attitude towards divorce as just another feature in a kaleidoscope of salacious entertainment for the public.
Bartley makes what might be seen as a reasonable argument regarding his application for divorce to Halleck, saying “that was the only way out, for either of us . . . we had tried it for three years, and we couldn’t make it go; we never could have made it go; we were incompatible.” (Howells, 2006). Such a statement could have come straight from a simple, non-contested divorce case in 2007 in which two people find that they are not compatible even though they thought that they were. But again, because it sounds reasonable to modern ears, this does not mean to say that Howell’s is condoning the point of view.
Indeed, the fact that he puts such opinions into the mouth of the character who cheats, lies and abandons people throughout the book:- albeit in an affable, likeable way – suggests that Howells is condemning this view of divorce as a merely practical virtue when a marriage has obviously failed. Yet Howells is not blind to the realities of the world. In one of the more memorable conversations of the book, the nature of love, marriage and the lack of love are discussed by two characters:
Halleck turned. “What could be a worse hell than marriage without love?” he demanded , fiercely.
“Love without marriage,” said Atherton.
While this may become somewhat reminiscent of the old Frank Sinatra song “Love and Marriage”, the paradox explicated by Atherton and Halleck is at the heart of the novel.
A loveless marriage is indeed hell, as Halleck suggests. But within the moral code of the time so is love without marriage. This is a hell because it cannot be fully realized within a lasting relationship or consummated if the couple are to maintain a semblance of morality.
The actual divorce case with which the novel ends is rendered in a manner that makes the proceedings tragi-comic in nature. Thus when Bartley appears to have won the day through Marcia not coming to the Court it seem as if his thoroughly amoral perspective on matters has finally vanquished the morality of the past. But eh subsequent arrival of Marcia and her father, together with the cross-complaint for divorce, renders the whole rather farcical in nature.
At this lat moment divorce seems to be neither championed or disdained, rather it is a rather neat plot trick to bring matters to a sensible and neat conclusion. Howells mixtures melodrama, as Marcia “started half-way from her chair, and then fell back again . . . she looked round at Halleck as if for help, and hid her face in her hands” (Howells, 2006) with the “bad” man Bartley going into exile because of fallout from his failed lawsuit.
The final statement of the book is rather ambiguous. Apparently the fact that Halleck had loved Marcia while her husband was alive makes him ineligible, in a moral sense, to ask her to marry him now that she is a widower. The novels ends ambiguously, as if pointing the way to the relativistic morality of the Twentieth Century that Howells seems to sense is coming, and which he fiercely resists:
Of course it isn’t a question of gross black and white, mere right and
wrong; there are degrees, there are shades. There might be
redemption for another type of man in such a marriage; but for
Halleck there could only be loss, — deterioration – lapse from the
Ideal. . . .
To conclude, it seems clear from this that the absolute morality of the Nineteenth Century, something which Halleck takes to almost absurd lengths, would not forgive him his love for another man’s wife even though it was a loveless marriage that has been ended through death. Howells believes that divorce may be a last resort needed in cases of great cruelty and/or abandonment, but he also sees it as repugnant. Marriage is sacred, even one as loveless and broken as that portrayed in this novel.
Howells, William. A Modern Instance. Hard Press, New York: 2006.