The Modern American Novel Essay

2355 words - 9 pages

The Modern period covers a large amount of time, spanning from the late eighteen hundreds to the early nineteen hundreds. From the beginning of the modern era till the end, there have been many changes in society. When one looks at the roaring twenties, it is hard to imagine what America was like twenty or thirty years earlier. These drastic differences can be seen when one looks at one of the first Modern American Novels, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, and compares it to a later Modern American Novel, The Sun Also Rises. Not only are the societies depicted in the two novels utterly dissimilar, the way in which the works are written shows major changes in the field of literature. What is it that connects the beginning of the Modern era to the end?

In their novels, James and Hemingway say similar things about the Modern American male and female. In both novels, the masculine and feminine stereotypes are reversed within the main characters. Both authors question the roles of men and, especially, women in society. The difference between the novels is how those roles are reversed and to what lengths the author goes to convey it.

In The Portrait of a Lady, written in 1881, Henry James clearly expresses all the things that women in the end of the 1800s were entitled to have: " kindness, admiration, flattery, bouquets, the sense of exclusion from none of the privileges of the world she lived in, abundant opportunity for dancing, the latest publications, plenty of new dresses, the London Spectator, and a glimpse of contemporary aesthetics (James 30)." A different stand on women's rights is shown through two of the female characters in this novel: Isabel Archer and Mrs. Touchett. Both women react differently to the confining role that the society of the time placed on women.

Mrs. Touchett is a woman who brooks no compromise. If she ever has to make a choice between considering the feelings of someone or doing what she pleases, she will simply choose the latter. "This way of her own . . . was not intrinsically offensive - it was simply very sharply distinguished from the ways of others. The edges of her conduct were so clear-cut that . . . it sometimes had a wounding effect (James 17)." Mrs. Touchett decided not to live with her husband because she knew that if she did she would have to compromise on certain things. She would never give up her independence in that way.

Not only is Mrs. Touchett very independent, she also rebels against the stereotype of a woman. She is in no way motherly or comforting. Although she is fond of Ralph, her son, she rarely touches him. When she sees him she, "embraced her boy with her gloved hands (James 31)." Not only does she not embrace him with her arms, she doesn't even take her gloves off. She doesn't touch him with her skin. She doesn't, as women were expected to do, take care of her sick husband or even stay with him. In the beginning of the novel she doesn't even know he's ill because she's...

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