Suzanne M. Synborski, Maiden in a Maze: Sin in An Imperative Duty.

Most criticism of William Dean Howells’ An Imperative Duty is focused on the discussion of two factors, Howells’ handling of the race issue as viewed in his time, and a presumed motive, on Howells’ part, to advocate the assimilation of blacks into American white society. Through a comparison with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a review of Howells’ opinions on Hawthorne, and consideration of Howells’ religious upbringing, another motive for writing An Imperative Duty can be found. An Imperative Duty could be considered an exploration of sin with decidedly Puritanical overtones. Howells clearly patterns Chapter Eight of An Imperative Duty after Hawthorne’s Chapter 20 of The Scarlet Letter, thus treating Rhoda Aldgate’s attempt to accept her racially mixed blood much the same as Hawthorne treats Dimmesdale’s attempt to accept the fact that he committed the sin of adultery. Howells appears to have mixed motives for his writing. It could be said that Howells’ use of racial factors in An Imperative Duty is a complicated cloaking device employed to transform an outdated discussion of sin into an argument more palatable to a liberal Protestant population.

Maiden in a Maze: Sin in An Imperative Duty


In 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne explored the nature of sin and guilt with The Scarlet Letter. His setting is Puritan America where God’s chosen are earthly saints and where sinners are the others to be shunned and excluded from a righteous society and, ultimately, from heaven. It is an unforgiving world. Forty-one years later, with An Imperative Duty, William Dean Howells appears to explore the new American exclusionary factor--race--a secularized parallel to the Puritan dichotomy of good and evil. This parallel is most apparent when one compares the trips to the abyss taken by Arthur Dimmesdale and Rhoda Aldgate.

Although both tales take place in the same geographic area, Boston and Salem, both former strongholds of Puritanism, a social change is apparent in An Imperative Duty. It is 1891 and Puritanism is largely a thing of the past. Protestantism rules. The Puritan worthies are no longer God’s chosen. Whites replace them as God’s chosen and the new others are immigrants and, in particular, people of color who are excluded from genteel society and the American dream. It could be expected that writers of the time, interested in the psychological effects of religion, would be anxious to document this change. Thomas Engeman concurs, stating that Howells’ novels analyze central aspects of American religious life, one of which is the conversion of "Puritanism into liberal Protestantism" (4). So it is entirely possible that Howells is interested in examining Puritanism’s replacement. Howells’ handling of Rhoda’s dilemma is a secularized response to Hawthorne’s Puritan subject matter.

The Scarlet Letter and An Imperative Duty bear numerous similarities. Both works include a main character who suffers from the pain of a hidden stain caused by a sin of a sexual nature; a woman who espouses the truth and insists that the secret be revealed; a minister who is an exemplar of certain aspects of American religion, and a doctor who, without the other’s knowledge, knows the secret. The action takes place in two similar worlds, each curiously devoid of color except for splashes of scarlet that serve as brands to mark the others.

In The Scarlet Letter, only Hester, Pearl, and Native Americans wear red. In An Imperative Duty, black men wear crimson neckties and scarlet jerseys (6). "Thin and crooked" Irish girls wear red jerseys (2). And Olney, who decides to accept a woman of color, has gold-red hair (13). Most significantly, Rhoda Aldgate has a "rich complexion of olive, with a sort of under-stain of red" (16). Like Dimmesdale, Rhoda believes she carries a secret mark. In the last chapter she says: "It’s burnt into me. It’s branded me one of them. I am one" (144). Likewise, in the forest, Dimmesdale says of his own imaginary stain: "Mine burns in secret" (135).

For both works, the transgressions that drive the action were committed in the distant past. John Crowley sees this interest in delayed effects as a connection between the two writers: "Like Hawthorne, Howells has less interest in the immediate than in the historically cumulative effects of an evil deed--with the long breath of the past" (The Mask of Fiction 174). Howells believed that knowing of a sin and allowing it to continue, unchallenged, was tantamount to complicity.

Both works tell remarkably similar stories of polar opposites that cannot reconcile due to the pressures of a categorical society. This correlation is most evident when one compares how Dimmesdale and Rhoda each respond to the decision to embrace the possibility of becoming an other. These chapters are both important turning points. Although the final outcomes differ, just as Dimmesdale attempts to accept the fact that he sinned, Rhoda, in Chapter Eight, tries to accept the fact that she is "sin born." In Chapter Twenty of The Scarlet Letter, "The Minister in a Maze," Dimmesdale’s attempt to accept his sin lures him into a dreamlike world where he walks through town and relishes potential sins he might act out--he tries out life as a sinner: "At every step he was incited to do some strange, wild, wicked thing or other[...]" (151). In a similar fashion, in Chapter Eight of An Imperative Duty, Rhoda steeps herself in a world of blackness in an attempt to try out her newly discovered racial makeup. Rhoda imagines herself saying to black people in the street: "Take me home with you, and let me live with you and be like you every way" (87). These two chapters are remarkably parallel in their composition and effect. Kermit Vanderbilt defines this parallel element as a "culminating vision into the abyss that is implicit in Hawthorne and which Howells and James, in their writing elsewhere, clearly recognize"(421). Dimmesdale and Rhoda each turn away from the vision. They each return from a dark journey into the self, unable to accept a marginalized place in society.

It is not hard to believe that Howells could have been influenced by Hawthorne, whom he referred to as: "The exquisite artist, the unrivaled dreamer [...]" (Literary Friends and Acquaintances 10). In 1986 Howells made a pilgrimage to Salem to visit Hawthorne and said of the meeting: "My memory of him is without alloy one of the finest pleasures of my life" (Literary Friends and Acquaintances 55). He once chastised Henry James for not praising The Scarlet Letter highly enough (Criticism and Fiction 233). Howells said that The Scarlet Letter was "unexampled and unrivaled" (Criticism and Fiction and Other Essays 234). According to Edward Wagenknecht, Howells also stated that the forest scene of The Scarlet Letter, "could be equaled only in some of the profoundly impassioned pages of the Russian novelists, who, casting aside all the common adjuncts of art, reveal us to ourselves in the appeal from their own naked souls" (28). There can be no question that Howells held Hawthorne in the highest esteem, but did he admire him enough to try to emulate him?

Many critics see shadows of Hawthorne in Howells’ work. John Carrington considered Howells to be the legitimate successor of Hawthorne because of his "similar attempt to find and present the portentous in the ordinary [...]" (29). According to John Crowley, "The moral dilemma in The Shadow of a Dream closely corresponds, in fact, to that of Hawthorne’s Fancy’s Show Box" (The Mask of Fiction 128). Crowley also believes that Howells, in his introduction to an anthology of psychic tales, paraphrased Hawthorne’s words: "neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other" (The Mask of Fiction 135). Crowley goes on to state that Hawthorne was "the inevitable muse of A Difficult Case, which might well have been titled ‘The Minister in a Maze,’ since it was undoubtedly inspired by that chapter in The Scarlet Letter" (The Mask of Fiction 138). If Crowley’s observation is accurate, then this same chapter may very well have been a source of inspiration for other of Howells’ works.

Another linking factor is the evidence that Howells, like Hawthorne, held a strong interest in Puritanism. Howells was known to discuss Cotton Mather and The Day of Doom (Wagenknecht 22). Like Hawthorne, Howells’ views on Puritanism were negative. Howells once said that Puritanism was "A black tide that swept over men’s souls" (Criticism and Fiction and Other Essays 81). He believed that even though Puritanism in its original form was gone, its "inherited manner still stamps the New England Manner" (Howells, Literature and Life 282). In other words, he felt the Puritan ethos had been secularized. Could be a darker motive for writing for An Imperative Duty--something other than race?

There is more to Rhoda’s past than miscegenation; there is adultery. This fact hints at deeper motivations driven by Howells’ own religious beliefs, again, linking to another connection to The Scarlet Letter. In Howells’ childhood, religious training was strict and dark and founded on the teachings of Swedenborg. Young Howells was taught that every move he made or every thought he harbored was a conscious choice between heaven and hell, and that God would not intercede in his behalf (Crowley The Black Heart’s Truth 4). Young Howells suffered from a morbid conscience, death phobias, and a tragic fear of animals from which he was convinced he would contract rabies, a disease with a protracted incubation period. He was also haunted by constant nightmares of a psychosexual nature and learned to associate sexual thoughts of any kind with the hell of Swedenborg. (Crowley, The Black Heart’s Truth 14-24). According to John Crowley, Howells was so influenced by his youthful exposure to the teachings of Swedenborg and his revelations such as "the falsification of truth is fornication, and the perversion of good is adulteration" and "Adultery is hell; and hell in general is adultery," that Howells, when faced with an unmarried pregnant houseguest, "waged a campaign of persecution against her" (Crowley, The Black Heart’s Truth 18-19). He refused to sit at the same table or eat off a plate she may have touched. Howells was then only a youth, but such strong beliefs persist into adulthood. Later in life, he was scandalized by the presence of women in public restaurants and advocated the censorship of nudes in art and "filth" in literature.

Howells suffered three nervous breakdowns, the first occurring at the age of seventeen. John Crowley connects this first breakdown with the onset of puberty and the development of Howells’ fear of Eros and sexual arousal. (Crowley, The Black Heart’s Truth 20). Howells appears to have been morbidly concerned with sin and sexuality, and according to Crowley, projected his most dangerous conflicts into his writing as a means of psychical self-defense (Crowley, The Black Heart’s Truth 33). Henry Wonham concurs, stating: "Writing became a way of channeling anxieties about the self outward, where they could be objectively observed and controlled" (Writing Realism 704). Rhoda’s split into selves may reflect Howells’ distrust of the stability of the self.

This first line of the New England Primer, "In Adam’s Fall, we sinned all," reflects the Puritan belief that the sins of the parent may be visited upon the child. One was either a sinner or a saint. It was all predestined. Of Dimmesdale, Dr. Chillingworth says: "This man...pure as they deem him,--all spiritual as he seems,--hath inherited a strong animal nature from his father or his mother" (93). It is an inherited animal nature that is the cause of sin, especially sins of the flesh. In a similar vein, Howells gives his others characteristics of animals, such as ape-like features and "hairy paws" (4).

In the chapter that precedes Dimmesdale’s journey into the maze, he meets with Hester in the woods. There, Hester asks him to run away with her to the old country where they can change their names and leave their sins behind. Dimmesdale had often considered confessing, but always decided to keep his "black secret of his soul" (103). "Remorse and Cowardice were two sisters who dogged him everywhere" (105). Because of this self-admitted cowardice, he kept his secret (103). Removing himself from Salem could be a way to avoid a public confession, so he accepts Hester’s plan.

To make this change, Dimmesdale must be willing to cross the stream into another world, to let go of his old self. He has been riding the razor’s painful edge, tottering between acknowledging his secret life as a sinner and continuing his duplicitous public persona as a saint. He has to make a choice. His Puritan indoctrination offers him only one choice, so he has to acknowledge that he is a sinner. Crossing the line sends Dimmesdale into the maze where he must view life through the eyes of a fallen man.

Dimmesdale’s self splits in two. He leaves his weak, good old self behind in the woods like a "cast off garment" (151). His new evil self, invigorated with strength "enjoys nothing short of a total change of dynasty and moral code" (151). He wallows in all the potential evil acts he encounters on his journey through town where all the usual sights and people appear distorted, unreal, evil.

Confused by his unexpected behavior, he wonders if he has somehow made a contract with the devil. "Did I make a contract with him in the forest, and sign it with my blood? And does he now summon me to its fulfilment, by suggesting the performance of every wickedness which his most foul imagination can conceive?" (153). Just as this unendurable thought crosses Dimmesdale’s mind, Mistress Hibbins, the witch lady, appears and says: "So, reverend Sir, you have made a visit into the forest" (154). She goes on to ask: "The next time, I pray you to allow me only a fair warning, and I shall be proud to bear you company." Dimmesdale is horrified. "Have I then sold myself to the fiend whom, if men say true, this yellow-starched and velveted old hag has chosen for her prince and master!" (154).

Dimmesdale realizes he is forever changed. He has become another man: "A wiser one; with a knowledge of hidden mysteries" (155). He rewrites his election sermon and escapes into the light when "Sunrise threw a golden beam into the study, and laid it right across the minister’s bedazzled eyes" (156). Dimmesdale attempts to reveal to his community the scarlet letter he imagines marks his chest. This is his undoing. Too weak to bear his irreconcilable existence, his only escape is death.

Like Dimmesdale, Rhoda is paired with a woman who knows her secret. Her aunt, Mrs. Meredith, not only knows the secret, but also harbors a Puritanical fascination with the truth and with duty. She is driven to expose Rhoda’s past in order to prevent the possibility of atavism. Mrs. Meredith sees Rhoda as black, hears a black voice when she speaks, and interprets her actions as those of a black person. She refers to her as a "creature" and believes that Rhoda’s race is calling her, as if she might devolve, right before her eyes (53). She treats Rhoda’s genetic makeup as a Puritan would sin. Howells sees this sort of behavior as a product of Puritanism. According to Howells, "Puritanism survives in the moral and mental make of the people almost in its early strength. Conduct and manner conform to a dead religious ideal; the wishes to be sincere, the wish to be just, the wish to be righteous are before the wish to be kind, merciful, humble" (Literature and Life 281). Mrs. Meredith is a secularized descendant of Puritan society.

Mrs. Meredith decides that it is time to reveal Rhoda’s secret. While Mrs. Meredith is exposing Rhoda’s secret to Dr. Olney, Rhoda whisks through the scene, pulling on a single glove (55). Here we are reminded of the sexton’s statement in The Scarlet Letter when he finds the single glove that Dimmesdale left on the scaffold: "A pure hand needs no glove to cover it." Through previous dialogue, we are aware of the fact that Rhoda and Mrs. Meredith equate blackness with evil, a lack of purity. The glove scene prefigures things to come.

When Rhoda is told that she has black blood, she reacts like a true Puritan. She must choose a side. Although she is only one-sixteenth black, like Dimmesdale, Rhoda sees herself as totally black: "I am–black?" When her aunt contradicts her and says that she is as white as anyone, Rhoda says: "But I have that blood in me? It is the same thing!" (74).

Here, Howells could be echoing Hawthorne’s anti-Puritan view on sin. The novel states that "A man can be anything along the vast range from angel to devil: without living either the good thing or the bad thing" (78). This is a statement that Hawthorne could have made. Unfortunately, Rhoda does not see her situation in this light. She sees herself as "slave-born and sin-born" (78). The sin of Rhoda’s ancestors, adultery, has been visited upon her. This knowledge catapults Rhoda into her own nightmare trip into a maze where the ground drops out from under her and where she sees visions of Africa (86).

Rhoda’s first step is to write a letter to her erstwhile fiancé, the minister. She goes out into the night to mail it. Like Dimmesdale, who confesses on a scaffold at night where nobody will hear him, Rhoda never mails the letter. In a chapter carefully framed by "the moony glare of an electric globe" light, she ventures out into the night to face her blackness. The moon traditionally symbolizes women, mothering, the mind, emotions, and security, all issues that haunted Howells’ personal life.

Rhoda finds she has unconsciously wandered into the black section of town. In every face, she searches for her mother, her self. When black people show her "deference," she feels that she has no right to such treatment. She sees herself as something to be shunned, like a Puritan sinner. On the other hand, she sees the people around her as "animals—hideous—worse than apes" (85). "She walked in a nightmare of these sights; all the horror of the wrong by which she came to be, poured itself round and over her" (86). Her vision is as distorted as Dimmesdale’s. When she sees a black girl who appears as white as she, Rhoda "began to calculate how many generations would carry her back, or that girl back, in hue, to the blackness of those loathsome old women" (86). Rhoda then calculates how many generations behind herself were populated by cannibals, cannibals being human animals. A sin of the past, transmitted through generations, is exerting its influence on the present.

Rhoda totally immerses herself in a new persona as did Dimmesdale who, when his "inner man" revolts, leaves his weak, former self behind in the woods like a "cast off garment" (151). Like Dimmesdale, Rhoda experiences a double consciousness: "There seemed two selves of her, one that lived before that awful knowledge, and one that had lived as long since, and again a third that knew and pitied them both" (87). John Carrington says of The Shadow of a Dream: "In a pointed, symbolistic way, curiously evocative of Hawthorne, Howells presents a work in which there is and can be no surety or confidence in self, situation, or perception" (44). The same distrust of the self is evidenced in Rhoda’s journey.

Dimmesdale had a "yellow-starched" woman who offers to accompany him into the forest to meet the Black Man. Likewise, Rhoda finds a yellow-skinned old woman who accompanies her to church. They enter the church. There, totally surrounded by black people, Rhoda realizes her goal of trying to own her new situation.

Rhoda had no motive in being where she was except to confront herself as fully and closely with the trouble in her soul as she could. She thought, so far as such willing may be called thinking, that she could strengthen herself for what she had henceforth to bear, if she could concentrate and intensify the fact of her outward perception; she wished densely to surround herself with the blackness from which she had sprung, and to reconcile herself to it, by realizing and owning it with every sense (92).

To complete the picture, the yellow-skinned lady has not only led Rhoda into a metaphorical, dark forest, she has led Rhoda to the Black Man. There on the pulpit, no doubt holding a black book, stands a speaker drawn to appear unreal, perhaps demonic.

He was entirely black, and he was dressed in black from head to foot, so that he stood behind the pulpit light like a thick, soft shadow cast upon the wall by an electric. His absolute sable was relieved only by the white points of his shirt-collar, and the glare of his spectacles, which, when the light struck them, heightened the goblin effect of his presence. He had no discernible features, and when he turned his profile in addressing those who sat at the sides, it was only a wavering blur against the wall (92-3).

In Rhoda’s America, the Puritanic view of sin has long since been cast aside and replaced by liberal Protestantism. She believes that sin can be overcome through the grace of God, but she also realizes the new frontier of color cannot be conquered with confession. This is made evident when Rhoda says: "He can’t make my burden lift; He can’t give me rest. If it were sin, He could; but it isn’t sin; it’s something worse than sin; more hopeless" (90). Rhoda closes her eyes to wall herself off from the side of her self she cannot face. When someone touches her, she starts and wakes from a sort of "hypnotic trance." She runs in terror to the safety of her apartment, and flies into the light (97).

Unlike Dimmesdale, Rhoda does indeed escap-to Italy-because she has no evil Chillingworth stalking her. She also has a strong, white man to rescue her. It is interesting that Rhoda and Olney move to Italy since Dimmesdale and Hester also consider escaping to "pleasant Italy" (138). Although Rhoda leaves her secret "stain" behind in America, she lives the rest of her life haunted by it, always wondering if she should confess to her friends. It is as if she has become Dimmesdale, forever grieving over one sin from the past, agonizing over whether she should confess each time she meets somebody new. In the conclusion of An Imperative Duty, the narrator says that Olney’s life-long problem with Rhoda is caused by a struggle with Rhoda’s "hypochondria of the soul into which the Puritanism of her father’s race had sickened in her[...]" (149). Rhoda hides her mark, perhaps because like Dimmesdale she cannot adapt, or perhaps because she knows that American society cannot adapt. While Dimmesdale sacrifices his life, Rhoda sacrifices America and her happiness.

Robert Long believes that Howells "adapted Hawthorne’s material and interpreted his characters in terms of modern realism[...]" (557). If this were entirely true, Howells’ characters could have employed their animal natures to adapt, to reinvent themselves into a new form that could survive in America. But like Dimmesdale, neither Rhoda nor Olney is able to do so. They run away and hide in another country because they would rather give up America than expose the secret. It is as though they are buying into the current, categorical, legal description of race. Kermit Vanderbilt appears to agree when he states that "Howells is more devastating than Hawthorne in rejecting the adaptability of his American characters" (424). Howells never offers Rhoda and Olney the choice of immersion into American society. As Jeffory Clymer explains, Howells only offers two polar choices, going south to become black, or leaving the country to be white. Clymer believes that "Howells can’t imagine, or can’t represent to his reading public, a boundary-disrupting, passing, middle-class black female." (48).

On first examination, one might believe that Howells is speaking through Olney, acting as a proponent for racial tolerance, for the immersion of blacks into the white population. But he never offers that option. Considering Howells’ religious upbringing, teachings that haunted his adulthood, it is also possible that, instead of through Olney, Howells is speaking through the mask of Mrs. Meredith, that he is actually examining and commenting on adultery and how its evil can travel through generations. Perhaps Howells had more Puritan in him than he would have liked to admit.

When Dimmesdale revealed his stain, he mistakenly believed that the truth could somehow save him as it did Hester (135). When Howells has Rhoda hide her stain, he is saying that his American society was not ready to accept miscegenation. Howells’ reading public would certainly have agreed. By not allowing Rhoda and Olney children, he may also be saying that the sin of adultery should be obliterated by not allowing it to be passed to another generation. But, would Howells’ readers agree with his Puritanic views on sin? Probably not. Perhaps, as with Hawthorne, an examination of sin was Howells’ true purpose for writing An Imperative Duty. Perhaps his intention was to activate an unconscious response to the sin of adultery. Perhaps race was a ruse employed to secure complicity from a race-conscious public.


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