A Modern Instance (1882), William Dean Howells. This is the first Howells novel I have read. Once upon a time, it was a famous book, much read. Even now, it is one of two Howells novel still in print from Penguin Classics, along with The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), and it is also available in a Library of America collection (where I read it), which means two editions are currently available. I’ve never come across a book blogger who has read it, but it ain’t dead yet.
The novel is about a young couple's bad marriage, one that turns sour because the husband turns out to be a much smaller man than he first appears and the wife has limited options. I get into the 1880s and 1890s and suddenly I am reading a surprising amount of divorce fiction.
The way the husband embraces and settles into his limitations is psychologically acute, the wife’s self-delusions a bit less so, or a bit more familiar, although she becomes fairly complex, too. A character, near the end, finds himself in “awe of her ignorance” (Ch. 39, 563); he stood in for me pretty well.
This is the husband, repairing some damage after a fight:
His heart was full; he was grateful for the mercy that had spared him; he was so strong in his silent repentance that he felt like a good man. (Ch. 22, 386)
That last part should be read with as much irony as possible. Similarly, this is the wife’s father, staying in Boston, missing his little town in Maine:
He suffered from the loss of identity which is a common affliction with country people coming to town. The feeling that they are of no special interest to any of the thousands the meet bewilders and harasses them; after the searching neighborhood of village life, the fact that nobody would meddle in their most intimate affairs if they could, is a vague distress. The Squire not only experienced this, but, after reigning so long as the censor of morals and religion in Equity[, Maine], it was a deprivation for him to pass a whole week without saying a bitter thing to any one. (Ch. 22, 394)
Small insights about regular people, but it’s the small accumulation of petty grievances that wreck the marriage. As the novel darkened, it began to remind me of Sister Carrie (1899), as in a scene where the husband begins to fantasize about the end of his marriage, about escaping it. “His thoughts wandered to conditions, to contingencies of which a man does not permit himself even to think without a degree of moral disintegration” (Ch. 30, 478) – what if they had never married, or never met, or if he ran off. Howells never gets as dark as, say Leo Tolstoy in The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), where in the exact parallel scene the husband thinks mostly about death, his wife’s and his own. American fiction could only go so far, perhaps.