After the Vows Were Spoken
Marriage in American Literary Realism
Allen F. Stein
Literary Criticism / American / General
329 pp. 6x9
At the conclusion of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain was to comment: “When one writes a novel about grown people, he knows exactly where to stop—that is with a marriage.”
For the modern reader, accustomed to the novels of such contemporary writers as John Updike, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Alison Lurie, Joseph Heller, John Cheever, and a host of other close observers of the complex and multifarious intimacies of American married life, Twain’s remark seems a curious one; for it excludes from fiction—and somewhat cavalierly at that—not only a crucial realm of adult experience but a major subject of some of the better American writing of recent decades. But though obviously exaggerated for comic effect, the comment does reflect an attitude that was long held by American authors of the nineteenth century and that was only beginning to change in Twain’s own day. Indeed, a decade later, the publication in the interim of The Portrait of a Lady, A Modern Instance, and The Rise of Silas Lapham would have made the notion that married life lay somehow beyond the purview of American fiction seem hopelessly outdated. Thirty years later, the work of William Dean Howells, Henry James, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Robert Herrick would have rendered the statement itself nearly incomprehensible.
A preoccupation with marriage permated the careers of these five writers who are the principal subjects of Professor Stein's intense and illuminating study. All are, in addition, usually considered to be realists, writers whom Edwin H. Cady has characterized as those who are “especially concerned with persons in relations with other persons.” As a consequence, Professor Stein finds a close and systematic examination of their depiction of marriage—which is, perhaps, the quintessential social relation—reveals a great deal not only about their brightest hopes and gravest doubts for manking but about realism itself as it was conceived to be in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.
It is a commonplace among students of the realism of this period that the realist mode is neither easy to define nor easily identifiable as having been practiced in a consistent manner by those generally regarded as its exponents. Professor Stein, by conducting a close study of five writers who arrived at widely varying conclusions about marriage as an institution that seems, in so basic a way, to epitomize the fundamental object of realist scrutiny—human relations in a commonplace social context—succeeds brilliantly in demonstrating conclusively just how diverse from one another the realists actually were in their aims, methods, and central values.
Allen F. Stein is professor of English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.