William Dean Howells: Short Stories Themes

William Dean Howells: Short Stories Themes

The Illusion of Romantic Fantasies

Across the entire spectrum of subjects of stories—whether serious anti-war statements or Christmas fantasies for kids—Howells pursues the theme of how romantic fantasies always wind up being some kind of illusion. The little girl who makes a wish for “Christmas Every Day” on the romantic assumption that something so wonderful one day out of the year would be wonderful every day soon learns the downside of that assumption. So many of his short stories are men and women pursuing actual fantasies of romance only to wind up realizing that reality can never hope to equal the dream. This theme is actually a playing out of the author’s lifelong support for more realism in American literature and less sentimental romance and perpetuation of myths related to social and political issues.


As a writer, Howells was a uniquely paradoxical individual. His restriction on exploring sexuality as character motivation is absolute; nowhere will readers be exposed in his stories to even the most tamely coded of sexual metaphors or the use of double entendre. Despite this notorious conservatism, however, readers will finds stories espousing explicit feminist principles, full-throated rejections of racism and prejudice and an ever-increasing move toward supporting socialist economics. Prudish regarding sexuality and displays of extreme emotions, conservative in his plots, and unambiguously liberal in his politics, the stories of Howells sometimes seen like an exercise in contradiction.

The Trivial Moment

Howells rejected Gothic fiction with the same purposeful intent as he rejected the very opposite of the Gothic template: adventurous naturalistic fiction as exemplified by Jack London. His view of realistic fiction maintained a steadfast avoidance of the Big Climax and instead focused expanding trivial moments in the lives of his character into the focal point of the narrative. His stories are typically heavily weighted with dialogue and he stretches out his conclusions more than most. Howells asserted that the truth of an individual is not found in the occasional moments requiring heroism, in those perhaps tiresome moments consumed by unthinking habit. It there that Howells goes digging in search of psychological revelation.

Double Vision

At some level nearly every protagonist in his stories suffers from double vision. The mundane moments of life that intrigue the author are exploited for the purpose of revealing to the character an additional level of perspective. Even the little girl wishing every day was Christmas is worked into this overarching them that is yet another example of how Howells chose to use his fiction to subtly advance an agenda. A firm believer that fiction should accomplish more than mere entertainment or distraction, Howells set for himself the task of using his stories to reveal through character the difference between looking at the world in a realistic manner and looking at it through perceived reality shaped by the myths and falsities of romantic idealization.

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