William Dean Howell's A Hazard of New Fortunes and Soren Kierkegaard's Philosophy of Existence

Seminar Paper, 2002

15 Pages


Table of Contents

Kierkegaard's Modes of Existence

The Characters in A Hazard





In contrast to the writings by his contemporary Henry James, Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes can surely not be called a "difficult" read. The socio-critical message seems obvious, the sequence of events is almost linear and easy to follow, and the characters act in a sufficiently comprehensible way. Yet as it often happens, more subtle implications become apparent when the novel is given some deeper thought. One just has to begin to ask questions like 'why do we have such a multitude of characters?' or 'why is this or that statement put into irony?', and one will discover an intrinsic network of interrelated meaning on a number of different levels.

Ironically enough, Howells seems to give himself some of the reasons for a certain underestimation of his literature. He sees that an art which prefers "the common, the simple and the unpretentious" contradicts the aesthetic demands of a sophisticated readership, and so does a strong ethical concern. In A Hazard Howells makes March explain, for example, that if he wrote "those things with an ethical intention explicitly in mind, [he] should spoil them" (129). Furthermore strong ethical opinions are met with a lack of understanding. Ethical convictions do not seem to fit into modern times and appear either old-fashioned, anti-aesthetic or both.

Whilst Howells explores the question of ethics, responsibility and agency through the carful description of people's problems, thoughts and doings - faithful to his maxim that "realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material" (1993, Vol II: 319) - a Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, developed a system of modes of human existence to the same purpose half a century earlier. Like Howells, he started from a faithful description and analysis of human character. It is, however, improbable that Howells knew Kierkegaard as the latter's writings were first translated into English in 1908 and only slowly entered the public discourse in the English speaking world.[1] Yet the question of how to place the individual in the rapidly changing society of "Golden Age Denmark" or "Gilded Age America" respectively seemed to have moved both authors alike.

Kierkegaard's Modes of Existence

For Kierkegaard it goes without saying that the individual is the 'bottle-neck through which history develops'[2]. He objects to submitting the subject to levelling rules, no matter whether these derive from philosophical logic like in Hegel's system or from concrete organisational necessities like those emerging with the rise of capitalist mass production. Kierkegaard maintains the importance of the individual as a subject. Yet the subject is first and foremost an aesthetic being which

is essentially concerned with exploring means to his own satisfaction and where there is a consequent absence of overall continuity in the course he follows. (Craig 239)

Yet to become the true individual subject with an "evenness in the soul, a harmony, which is the fruit of the personal virtues" (Kierkegaard 82), the individual has to make a choice. This choice is not a theoretical reflection on advantages or disadvantages, it is not based on understanding and rational thinking, but it is based on the will to become oneself, "to possess [one]self defined in [one's] entire concretion" (ibid). This choice enables the subject to enter the ethical mode of existence. It does not, however, imply a static existence but the choice has to be repeated again and again and thereby confirmed in the actual life. Thus the ethical mode of existence implies steady action in the one chosen direction.[3]

Kierkegaard realises, however, that the ethical also meets with limitations. The ethical has the ideal as task which requires that the individual owns the conditions for it. But the strengths of the ethical autonomous being does not suffice to assert itself in view of the difficulties of existence.[4] Kierkegaard states that only in his turning to God and by admitting the Christian paradox, the individual transcends the border to the religious mode of existence and finds the way of existence that renders it truly subjective and makes it thus fulfil its aim of existence. Accordingly the ethic mode is only transitory and the religious mode of existence forms the third and highest mode of existence in Kierkegaard's philosophy.

The aesthetic mode of existence, whose actual appearances may be manifold, seems to find its most developed expression in modern capitalist economy with its mechanisms of replacing "necessity" by "desire".[5] Therefore the conclusion may be drawn that capitalism tends towards retaining this mode of existence or, in other words, towards hindering the development of a truly individual, independent and subjective character in this "wayward society".[6] It appears that both Kierkegaard and Howells were very much concerned with this phenomenon.

In their effort to put their respective projects into existence, Kierkegaard as well as Howells used a comparable strategy which Kierkegaard himself called "indirect communication". Although both authors could not help avoiding a certain degree of didacticism, they put alternative ways of life before the readers and made him the arbiter.

By obliging a man to take notice I achieve the aim of obliging him to judge. Now he is about to judge - but how he judges is not under my control (Kierkegaard 464).

Kierkegaard uses an intricate system of pseudonymous writings - each pseudonym standing for a different viewpoint. Howells - though a little less elaborated - prepares the technique of point-de-vue by offering a panoramic view of several characters in an episodic novel, a technique which, according to Schaller, Howells was inspired to by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.[7] Thus the narrative technique reflects their aim to achieve a subjective evaluation of their writings while preserving the complexity of affairs.[8]

The Characters in A Hazard

In his novel, Howells introduces the reader to some 20 characters. Each one could be the object of closer inspection - even the minor figures like Mrs Horn or Kendricks - and each analysis would contribute to the appreciation of Howells's mastery in grasping and representing his time with all its complexity while at the same time not losing seight of strong overall patterns – the so-called conventions. Kierkegaard's theory of the modes of existence is just another way of depicting and understanding the human being in its intricacy while not failing to spot overarching outlines despite superficial concrete variety. To exemplify that Kierkegaard's philosophy provides a deeper understanding of Howells's account, I will examine three major personages, March, Lindau and Fulkerson. However, only a complete analysis of all characters would really do justice to the depths of psychological insight the two authors reveal.


March is no doubt the central figure. He is introduced in the very first line and it is his words that close the novel. As some of Howells's biographical data correspond to those of March, March may possibly be regarded as an alter ego of the author.

March is represented as a devoted family father. He is educated, intelligent, pleasant, tolerant and benevolent. In New York he takes his environment in with the clear eye of an open-minded intellectual. Not to despair because of the perceived inequalities of modern city life, he adopts the attitude of an objective and disinterested observer. This stance, however, becomes increasingly problematic as can be noted by his change from high spirited irony to bitter sarcasm towards the second half of the novel. Yet chance (or Howells perceiving the possibilities of the chance world) helps March to almost recover by happy circumstances. His life can keep flowing quietly ever after.

In Kierkegaard's terms, March is an aesthete. Various characteristics of the aesthetic mode of existence can be pinpointed with him. To meet his wish to live a life which satisfies the immediate natural desires of the human being, like health, beauty, riches etc., March employs "finite reasoning" (endliche Verständigkeit)[9] which is typical for middle class society.

Right from the start, Howells puts March into a series of more or less serious conflict situations. The pattern of solution is mostly the same, be it concerning the question of whether to move to New York or not, whether to take the flat or not, or whether to stand by Lindau or not. He acts on the grounds of weighing risks. He opts for New York because his Boston job has become insecure anyway and the security of a regular, though modest yearly income reduced the hazardous nature of the new enterprise to a calculable project. He could draw back if the adventure turned out to be a failure. He does not decide in Kierkegaard's sense but "chooses only for the moment and for that reason can choose something else the next moment." (Kierkegaard 72f). He adjusts to circumstances, he calculates the probable advantages in the long run. He strives for the happiness of satisfied desires not immediately but through thorough reflexion. By societal convention this pattern is acknowledged to be 'common sense', accommodation to circumstances is more profitable than striving for change.

To a great extent the middle class family derives its happiness from indulging in tasteful cultivation while serious pecuniary problems have to be eschewed. The assessment of such a happiness is made through comparisons with a reality outside their power and influence. But their standards can be altered according to requirements to keep up the illusion of happiness even if things go wrong. Howells ironically hints at this mechanism when he has the narrator say "Mrs. March was reputed to be very cultivated, and Mr. March even more so, among the simpler folk around them" (23).

A further important feature of the aesthete is that of living a "poetic life" (Kierkegaard passim): the aesthete may detach himself from the real world and tends to build up his own one. Also Howells sees this inclination in his contemporaries, and makes March belong to this group:

he went to his business and hurried back to forget it and dream his dream of intellectual achievement in the flattering atmosphere of her sympathy (23).

In addition, however, there is a quality in March which distinguishes him from most of the other figures of the novel (save Beaton) – this is irony. According to Greve, this capacity places him at the verge of transcending the limits of the aesthetic existence,[10] yet March cannot do the final step. He is in a trap which Kierkegaard describes in his dissertation On The Concept of Irony as follows:

For the ironic subject, the given actuality has lost its validity entirely; it has become for him an imperfect form that is a hindrance everywhere. But on the other hand, he does not possess the new. […] In one sense the ironist is certainly prophetic, because he is continually pointing to something impending, but what it is he does not know […] The ironist, […], has stepped out of line with his age, has turned around and faced it. That which is coming is hidden from him, lies behind his back, but the actuality he so antagonistically confronts is what he must destroy (28).

March does not destroy enjoyable moments in the strictest sense of the word but rather continually dampens the pleasure - be it in the train to New York, when a literary idea is ruined at the moment when its commodifying quality is detected,[11] or on the eve of the dinner at Dryfoos's, when March ironically praises the unity of the contributors of Every Other Week as long as these do not listen to one another,[12] or on many other occasions. Aesthetic pleasure is a thing of the moment, it must fail to satisfy lastingly.[13]

Similarly to Kierkegaard, Howells adds a further tint to the aesthetic mode of existence. After a matin service at Grace Church, March has to spoil the elevation felt by his wife by saying to her:


[1] cf. Marino

[2] cf. Galling 1266

[3] Kierkegaard discerns as the highest mode of existence the religious one - one can transcend the limits of the ethical existence only by "a religious leap" (K. passim) and by accepting the paradox nature of faith.

[4] cf. Theunissen 29

[5] cf. Horwitz 125

[6] cf. Horwitz passim

[7] cf. Schaller 78

[8] This technique appears to me comparable to the method the Hebrews applied when compiling the Old Testament. To represent man's multifaceted experiences with God, many apparently diverging stories were put side by side. By this organisation, simplistic conclusions were meant to be avoided through thought provoking contradictions. Thus Kierkegaard, Howells and many following authors drew actually back on a very old tradition - a tradition which addressed a "subjective thinker" (Kierkegaard 225).

[9] cf. Theunissen 195 ff.

[10] cf. Theunissen 192

[11] cf. Howells 35

[12] ibid 281

[13] cf. Kierkegaard 43 ff.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


William Dean Howell's A Hazard of New Fortunes and Soren Kierkegaard's Philosophy of Existence
University of Basel  (English Seminar)
2nd Year Course: Howells & James
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ISBN (eBook)
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William, Dean, Howell, Hazard, Fortunes, Soren, Kierkegaard, Philosophy, Existence, Year, Course, Howells, James
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Sixta Quaßdorf (Author), 2002, William Dean Howell's A Hazard of New Fortunes and Soren Kierkegaard's Philosophy of Existence, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/17505


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