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Realist's view of evil : a study of four Howells novels Johnson, Richard Thomas

Abstract

One of the common themes of derogatory criticism of Howells has been that he practised and advocated a "literary realism" that unrealistically denied or ignored the existence of significant evil in man and his society; that Howells was hopelessly crippled as a would-be "realistic" novelist by his propriety-bound denials, evasions and superficialities, by his demonstrable lack of a meaningful, manifest "sense of evil" in his fiction. The purpose of this thesis is to prove that Howells did in fact have a meaningful "sense of evil" that is manifest in much of his later fiction. Chapter I traces in some detail the origins, development and scope of this line of criticism of Howells, from the guarded reservations of Henry James in 1886 to the flat accusations of the Twentieth Century critics who established Howells' alleged optimism, genteel evasiveness and superficiality as damning clichés of second-hand criticism. It then notes the existence of critical reassessments that question the validity of much of the earlier prevalent criticism of Howells. Drawing on the assertions or implications of some of this recent criticism, it makes four propositions about Howells' treatment of "evil" in his novels which, if true, largely invalidate most of the assertions and premises about Howells' lack of a "sense of evil." It finally proposes four of Howells' later, less-known novels for study as sources of examples of Howells' conception, recognition, and treatment of "evil" as a part of the subject of "realistic" fiction. Chapter II is a study of The Landlord at Lion's Head (1897). The innate attributes, the social responses and the specific acts of the title character, Jeff Durgin, can be seen to demonstrate the validity of the four propositions put forward in Chapter I. Durgin becomes involved in a vengeful exchange of evil for evil that ends in near-murder, a not insignificant manifestation of the power of evil. His less obviously serious misdeeds may be seen to have greater moral significance than critics of Howells' alleged superficiality or evasiveness have usually been willing to grant. Howells subtly underlines and elaborates the representative significance of Durgin as a social type. Fourth, Howells' qualified "naturalism" may be seen in the emphasis placed on malign innate and environmental forces as factors that mitigate, but do not eliminate, Durgin's personal culpability for his misdeeds and his selfish, socially irresponsible "tough-minded realism." Chapter III is a study of The Son of Royal Langbrith (1904). Like Ibsen's Ghosts, it concerns the persisting effects of a long-dead "examplary" man's legacy of concealed evil. Unlike Ghosts, it is a drama of the containment and laying of evil by the passive suffering or the self-sacrificing moral and emotional compromises' of its direct and indirect victims. Chapter IV is a study of a domestic comedy, The Kentons (1902). It provides examples of Howells' inclusion and treatment, even within his later comedies, of serious moral problems involving individual abuse and destructive social attitudes or conventions. Chapter V is a study of The Leatherwood God (1916), a tragicomedy of the self-destroying rise and fall of a backwoods religious mountebank, and of the potentially dangerous strains that his public and private depredations and their effects place on individual morality and civil order within the community of Leatherwood. Like The Son of Royal Langbrith, it represents a Howellsian extreme in the recognition and fictional treatment of "evil," and like the earlier book it gives insights into Howells' "naturalistic" reasons for usually confining his depiction of "evil-doers" to the depiction of characters who are not monsters of self-righteous immorality.

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