William Dean Howells: Short Stories

Escapism in William Dean Howells’ “Scene” 11th Grade

The desire to escape, to break free from confinement or control, emerges in William Dean Howells’ short story “Scene,” where the actual tragedy of a suicide victim appears secondary to the importance of the diversion it creates for the characters involved: the Contributor and the residents of the Irish town. Through “Scene,” Howells conveys the concept of escapism, in its various expressions, as an integral part of life.

The idea of escapism makes an immediate appearance. The story’s title implies a place or setting where an incident, real or imagined, may occur or have occurred. The use of one single word for the title, with its lack of a definite article to anchor it to a specific event, or an adjective to determine the scene’s quality or tone, implies freedom of interpretation. In the opening paragraph of the story, the residents of a poor, Irish, coastal town welcome any escape from the reality of the daily grind of their lives. Howells describes their “small Irish houses standing miserably about on the flats ankle deep, as it were, in little pools of the tide” (Howells 190). By using personification, Howells ties the residents to the confines of their surroundings. The people, like the houses, appear miserable not only in...

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