Bartley Hubbard is a hollow man. He is a flawed character and totally without principles. He is self-absorbed and uses others to improve his standing in his own mind. He is not a wicked man in the strict sense of that word: he hasn’t killed anyone and hasn’t raped any women — so far as we know. Though, in all honesty he does flirt mercilessly with pretty young women while in the company of his beautiful wife. Oh, did I mention? His wife is beautiful and worships the ground Bartley walks on — which is why he married her. While she is away one Summer after they have been married for some years, he ruminates on his wife and his feelings for her, recalling that when they broke apart some years before, she was the one who sought him out and wanted to be with him, accepting all the blame for his many shortcomings:
“As he recalled the facts, he was in a mood of entire acquiescence; and the reconciliation had been of her own seeking; he could not blame her for it; she was very much in love within and he was fond on her. In fact, he was still fond of her; when he thought of the little ways of hers, it filled him with tenderness. He did justice to her fine qualities, too; her generosity, her truthfulness, her entire loyalty to his best interests; . . .[however,] in her absence he remembered that her virtues were tedious and even painful at times. He had his doubts whether there was sufficient compensation for them. He sometimes questioned whether he had not made a great mistake to get married; he expected now to stick it through; but this doubt occurred to him.”
Bartley and his wife Marcia have a child. He is only a fiction, of course, a figment of William Dean Howells’ imagination. But he is, in Howells’ words, a “modern instance” in the novella by that name. Bartley Hubbard, pragmatic and unfeeling at the core, is a modern instance of a hollow man whom Howells worried was beginning to become more and more common in the late nineteenth century, the so-called “modern” age. In our “post-modern” age his type is becoming legion. And in a country led by the grand pooh-bah of hollow men, we should be quite familiar with the type by this time.
Bartley drifts along writing for newspapers and accepting the accolades and financial rewards, when they come, as a matter of course. A turning point in the novel, when Bartley steps over a line and becomes less a hollow man and perhaps more a cad, is when he steals intellectual property from an old and trusted (and trusting) friend, Kinney, “the philosopher from the logging camp.” Kinney was, among many things, a cook at that logging camp in Maine who had befriended Bartley because he saw in him a bright and good-humored person. One evening Kinney shares with Bartley and another friend stories of his exploits during his long and fascinating life. He plans one day to write them down and get them published, but before he can do that Bartley has written them down and had them published himself to wide acclaim. In the process he allows it to be mistakenly believed that the friend who was with him that evening wrote the stories — his friend is allowed to take the blame for the theft of another’s intellectual property when it becomes known. Needless to say, in the process Bartley loses two close friends. But he cares not. Not really; after all, he has lost a number of friends along the way, people who have seen through the facade and don’t like what lies behind. After all, his story was a success and it garnered him a large financial reward. And money is very important to Bartley — along with the prestige it gives him.
The truth slowly comes out about what Bartley has done and he finds himself fired from his high-paying job on one of Boston’s most popular newspapers and set somewhat adrift. He borrows some money from a man he regards as a friend and proceeds to gamble it away. His wife finally begins to see the sort of man she has married and sends him packing, though she immediately regrets it because she can never quite shakes the image she has of the man she still loves. It bothers him not, because he can rationalize that what he did is not wrong and others are wrong to persecute him. Bartley is very good at rationalizing and placing the blame on others. As a hollow man he has no center, no principles that might otherwise give his life meaning and direction. This in one reason he remained with his wife as long as he did: she had been very willing to take the blame for his many faults and brush them aside as they did not fit in with her image of what her husband is.
William Dean Howells is a brilliant novelist and A Modern Instance may be his best work., But in any event, he is prescient as he saw coming soon after the Civil War that the Bartley Hubbards would become increasingly numerous, men who are hollow at the core and who are lost within the labyrinth of their own diminished self whose only goal is to seek pleasure and financial ease. And like any great work of literature, there is much food for thought and many insights into the modern, and the post-modern, temper. We can learn a great deal from those old, dead, white, European (or in this case American) men, can we not?