A Modern Instance

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A Modern Instance
First edition
Author William Dean Howells
Country United States
Language English
Genre Literary realism
Publisher J. R. Osgood & Co.
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 514

A Modern Instance is a realistic novel written by William Dean Howells, and published in 1882 by J. R. Osgood & Co. The novel is about the deterioration of a once loving marriage under the influence of capitalistic greed. It is the first American novel by a canonical author to seriously consider divorce as a realistic outcome of marriage.[1]


The novel explores the deterioration of what could have been an otherwise healthy marriage through industrial enterprise and capitalistic greed. The story chronicles the rise and fall of the romance between Bartley Hubbard and Marcia Gaylord, who migrate from Equity, Maine, to Boston, Massachusetts, following their marriage. The reader believes at the beginning of the story that their love for each other is unbreakable, but as the plot advances, more and more troubles arise, alienating the couple. Soon their entire marriage collapses, inundated with problems from a wide array of areas. Marcia Hubbard, lost and desolate in the gloom of her husband's abandonment, is offered solace in the comforting touch of her friend Ben Halleck, who secretly is attracted to her. However, he worries that she may reject him, unable to move on from her previous partner. The story concludes in a meaningless vortex of isolation representing modern society. Marcia Hubbard, still attached to Bartley, confines herself to her father's home in Equity, Maine, from which she never leaves. Bartley, on the other hand, has died. Ben Halleck stands hesitantly, unable to determine whether or not he should seize the chance and propose to her.


A Modern Instance is regarded as one of the most pivotal works in the career of William Dean Howells; it solidified his reputation as a champion of realism in the United States. Part of that realism is the groundbreaking unapologetic portrait of Bartley Hubbard as an agnostic and which could be modeled on Howells' friend Mark Twain.[2] A version of the Bartley Hubbard character appears as a somewhat sleazy journalist interviewing the title character at the beginning of Howells's novel The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885).[3]


  1. ^ Freeman, Kimberly. "The 'Enormous Fact' of American Life: Divorce in W. D. Howells' 'A Modern Instance.'" American Literary Realism 36.1 (Fall, 2003): 65-85. [1]
  2. ^ Duffy, Myrtle M. "Twain in Howells' 'A Modern Instance.'" American Quarterly 16.4 A Mark Twain Issue (Winter 1964): 612-614.
  3. ^ Casper, Scott E. Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999: 317. ISBN 0-8078-4765-8

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