This essay challenges received readings of William Dean Howells’s A Modern Instance and well-established critical assumptions that associate his realist project with public male legal discourse and define it strongly against presumptively feminine rhetorical strategies like sentimentality. In A Modern Instance, Howells shows the professional effectiveness of strategically deployed affective narration in the courtroom, making it a necessary subject for realist representation. I argue that the novel is Howells’s realist response to and rewriting of E. D. E. N. Southworth’s The Deserted Wife; that Gaylord’s courtroom narration is a reductive, parodic version of Southworth; and that Howells’s ending punishes Gaylord and Marcia, who have functioned as sentimental author and heroine. Critics have long accepted Howells’s 1908 claim that Euripides’s Medea inspired the novel, but I contend that it was more likely conceived as an appropriation and revision of Southworth, whose pivotal chapter is titled “The New Medea.” Anxiously competing for the role of moral and cultural advisor to female readers, Howells writes his own deserted wife novel, in which he vanquishes Southworth in a variety of ways.
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Laura H. Korobkin; William Dean Howells’s Deserted Wife: E. D. E. N. Southworth, A Modern Instance, and Sentimental Divorce Narration. American Literature 1 June 2014; 86 (2): 333–360. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2647018
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