Breaking up: Divorce and the American novel from 1881 to 1976

Date of Completion

January 2001


American Studies|Literature, American




This dissertation compares the treatment of divorce in a range of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century American novels. Divorce has taken on a peculiarly “American” resonance during the twentieth century and become a popular cultural concern, yet there is surprisingly little study of divorce in American literary history. The neglect of divorce in American literature may be a lingering bias against the realist novel of manners that has been fostered by the contested, yet highly influential, romance thesis, which posits that romance is the form of “canonical” American novels. Divorce has been cast as a domestic theme, more appropriate to realism than the metaphysical concerns of romance. I argue that the subject of divorce, however, bridges the romance and the realist novel of manners because it is at once romantic, in its invocation of adventure, self-fulfillment, and idealism, and realist in its social, domestic, and material consequences. ^ Chapter one provides an overview of the history of divorce in the United States and a brief review of the romance thesis in American literary history. Chapter two examines William Dean Howells' A Modern Instance (1881), arguing Howells uses divorce to explore his concern with the moral function of literature and the profession of the author in late nineteenth-century America. Chapter three focuses on Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country (1913), positing that Wharton uses divorce to contribute to what she views as a fledgling tradition of the American novel of manners. Chapter three looks at Mary McCarthy's A Charmed Life (1955), illustrating how McCarthy's use of divorce reflects her ideas about the importance of realism in the novel in post World War II America. Chapter four argues that John Updike's Marry Me (1976) marks a pivotal shift in Updike's oeuvre, showing how the author uses divorce to shift away from the autobiographical realism of his early career toward more experimental modes. Noting that these authors share patterns of symbols, such as the abandonment of the house, I suggest that they interweave romance and realism and provide a formal vocabulary for talking about an American novel of divorce. ^