||Social reform is a crucial tool for idealists who wish to improve society. But this popular device sometimes does not succeed in achieving its anticipated goals. As a literature major, I have always been intrigued by the role of literature in various social reform movements. This was my motivation for selecting the thesis topic of American reform fiction. In particular I wanted to examine these authors’ technique of portraying societal reform from the intimate perspective of the individual, since the fictional account of the problems encountered and endured by these characters seemed to have great impact upon concurrent reform movements.
Close text analysis is employed here on the fictions of three nineteenth-century North American authors—Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Dean Howells and Henry James. By comparing their works and the unique perspective of each, we will witness the evolution of reform literature’s transformational influence upon social reform.
In the first chapter, I will focus on Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose anti-slavery stance defines her literary career. She utilizes the form of sentimental novel to agonize readers to the point that they will come to sympathize with the abolitionist point of view. Problems with the humanitarian ideas in her fictions are taken up in this chapter.
Authors like William Dean Howells and Henry James, though not usually considered typical reform writers, critiqued the practice of social form in their fictions. In chapter two I will focus on the issues Howells cared about, particularly the quality of “introspection”, without which one lacks the strength and wisdom to face life’s problems. His characters face dilemmas in their lives which portray the conflicting situations individuals who are deficient in introspection can meet. Differing from Stowe’s active role in social reform, Howells gradually spotlights the primary necessity of examining one’s own life with honesty and vigilance
Chapter three concludes with James’ novels, which further expand upon Howell’s conservativism, revealing how a lack of introspection at the individual level can even harm society. James exposes the complicated web of relationships in society and shows how one individual’s lack of self-reflection and integrity can tragically damage this web. This chapter reveals the great disparity in intent and technique among Stowe, Howells, and James.
I hope this revisit to the reform culture in America through these three authors’ fictions can entice us to contemplate the place of literature in future reform plans.