Discuss William Dean Howell’s Self Sacrifice as a Farce

Discuss William Dean Howell’s Self Sacrifice as a Farce

Many people honour William Dean Howells, a well-known American author and literary critic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for his contributions to American realism. One of his lesser-known pieces, "Self-Sacrifice," nevertheless, sticks out as a divergence from his usual approach. Published in 1865, this short story parodies the prevalent social and moral norms of the day in a lighthearted manner. 

Discuss William Dean Howell’s Self Sacrifice as a Farce

Farce as a Literary Genre

It's critical to define farce as a literary form before exploring 'Self-Sacrifice' as a farce. Farce is a type of comedy that uses physical humour, ludicrous characters, and exaggerated and unbelievable circumstances to make audiences laugh. It frequently involves misidentifications, miscommunications, and ridiculous circumstances that have humorous results. Farce's exaggerated depiction of human foolishness can also be used as a critique of society standards and ideals. It's crucial to keep in mind that farce relies on exaggerated situations and characters to make people laugh and think, rather than aiming for subtle or nuanced humour.

Elements of Farce in 'Self-Sacrifice'

Exaggerated Characters: Howells creates a cast of characters in 'Self-Sacrifice' who are exaggerated in their moral and social qualities. The story centers around Mrs. Dabney, a self-proclaimed paragon of self-sacrifice and virtue. Her character is portrayed in an exaggerated manner, with her insistence on "self-sacrifice" taken to absurd extremes. 

Discuss William Dean Howell’s Self Sacrifice as a Farce-She is willing to give away all her possessions, including her clothing, to achieve this self-imposed ideal. This extreme portrayal of self-sacrifice is a classic element of farce.

Absurd Situations: The story presents situations that are inherently absurd, such as Mrs. Dabney's offer to exchange her clothing with the prostitute, Miss Kingsbury. The idea of such an exchange is far-fetched and serves as a source of humor. The absurdity escalates as Mrs. Dabney insists on helping Miss Kingsbury find salvation, even though the circumstances are highly improbable.

Misunderstandings and Confusion: Farces often rely on misunderstandings and confusion among the characters to generate humor. In 'Self-Sacrifice,' there is a significant misunderstanding between Mrs. Dabney and Miss Kingsbury. Mrs. Dabney mistakenly believes that Miss Kingsbury is in need of salvation and attempts to rescue her through self-sacrifice. This misunderstanding creates a foundation for comedic situations.

Physical Humor: Physical humor is another common element of farce, and it often involves slapstick comedy or exaggerated gestures. While 'Self-Sacrifice' may not heavily rely on physical humor, it does have moments where the characters' actions and behaviors, such as Mrs. Dabney's fervent attempts at self-sacrifice, can be interpreted as comical in a physical sense.

Rapid Pacing: Farces tend to have a fast-paced plot with quick developments and reversals of fortune. In 'Self-Sacrifice,' Mrs. Dabney's commitment to self-sacrifice leads to rapid changes in the story, as she tries to give away her possessions, becomes entangled with Miss Kingsbury, and confronts various societal expectations.

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Satirical Intentions Of William Dean Howells

The satirical intentions in William Dean Howells' 'Self-Sacrifice' are central to the story's effectiveness as a farce. Howells uses satire to humorously critique and expose the follies and shortcomings of the societal values and norms prevalent in the 19th century. Here are some of the key satirical intentions in the story:

Hypocrisy of Virtue: One of the primary satirical targets in 'Self-Sacrifice' is the hypocrisy of those who profess to be virtuous and morally superior. Mrs. Dabney, the central character, represents this hypocrisy. She loudly proclaims her dedication to self-sacrifice and moral virtue, yet her actions are driven more by ego and social status than by genuine selflessness. Howells satirizes the superficiality and self-serving nature of such declarations of virtue, highlighting the vast gap between her words and her actions.

Gender Roles and Expectations: The story satirizes the traditional gender roles and expectations placed upon women in the 19th century. Mrs. Dabney's unwavering commitment to self-sacrifice and her mission to "save" Miss Kingsbury are products of a society that severely limited women's roles and agency. Howells uses satire to exaggerate the absurdity of these expectations, portraying them as oppressive and irrational.

Class Prejudices: Through the characters of Mrs. Dabney and Miss Kingsbury, the story satirizes the class prejudices of the era. Mrs. Dabney's condescension and attempts to "save" Miss Kingsbury reflect the biases that existed in a society sharply divided along class lines. The satire in this context exposes the shallowness of such judgments and challenges the moral superiority often ascribed to the upper classes.

Religious Arrogance: 'Self-Sacrifice' delves into religious themes and satirizes the self-righteousness of certain religious individuals. Mrs. Dabney's unshakable belief that she has a divine mission to reform and save Miss Kingsbury is a caricature of those who believed they were chosen to be moral saviors. Howells uses humor to critique the presumptuousness of such self-righteousness.

Superficial Moral Labels: The story satirizes society's tendency to apply simplistic and superficial moral labels to individuals. Miss Kingsbury is instantly labeled as immoral due to her profession as a prostitute, while Mrs. Dabney is perceived as virtuous because of her outward display of self-sacrifice. Howells uses satire to demonstrate the inadequacy of such labels and to challenge the validity of moral judgments based on surface appearances.

In 'Self-Sacrifice,' Howells masterfully combines humor and satire to expose the hypocrisies, contradictions, and societal shortcomings of the 19th century. The satirical intentions of the story invite readers to critically examine the moral and social constructs of the time, encouraging them to question the authenticity of self-sacrifice, the superficiality of virtue, and the prejudices that underpinned society. By employing satire, Howells makes a powerful statement about the need for more genuine and meaningful moral values, free from the trappings of hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

Social Commentary in 'Self-Sacrifice'

Certainly, let's delve deeper into the social commentary present in William Dean Howells' 'Self-Sacrifice':

Gender Inequality and Expectations: The story vividly portrays the gender inequality of the 19th century. Mrs. Dabney, as a female character, is expected to embody selflessness and virtue, conforming to the societal expectations of women as caregivers and moral compasses. Her commitment to self-sacrifice is an exaggerated representation of the pressure placed on women to fulfill these roles, which often left them with limited agency and a constant demand for selflessness.

Class Division and Prejudice: The narrative illuminates the class divisions that were deeply entrenched in 19th-century society. Mrs. Dabney, a wealthy and respected woman, interacts with Miss Kingsbury, a woman from a lower social class working as a prostitute. The stark contrast between the two characters underscores the rigid class hierarchy and exposes the condescension and prejudices prevalent in society. Mrs. Dabney's attempt to "save" Miss Kingsbury is not just a reflection of her moral self-righteousness but also a manifestation of class-based paternalism.

Hypocrisy and Self-Serving Actions: The story critiques the hypocrisy of individuals who use moral and religious rhetoric to mask their self-serving actions. Mrs. Dabney's proclaimed self-sacrifice is, in reality, a self-serving act that boosts her own ego and social standing. This reflects a broader societal issue, where outward appearances and moral grandstanding often took precedence over genuine virtue. Howells highlights the hollowness of these pretenses through humor and satire.

Religion and Self-Righteousness: 'Self-Sacrifice' touches upon religious themes, specifically the idea of self-righteousness. Mrs. Dabney, driven by her unwavering belief in her capacity to save others, embodies a certain strain of religious arrogance that was prevalent in the 19th century. This critique extends beyond the character to comment on the presumptuousness of certain religious individuals who believed they had a divine mission to reform and save others.

Moral vs. Immoral Labels: The story underscores society's tendency to label and categorize individuals as either moral or immoral, often simplifying complex human experiences. Miss Kingsbury's profession as a prostitute immediately brands her as immoral, while Mrs. Dabney's outward show of self-sacrifice portrays her as virtuous. Howells uses satire to expose the shallowness of such judgments and calls into question the validity of these labels.

In 'Self-Sacrifice,' Howells uses the farcical genre to exaggerate these societal issues, making them more pronounced and comical, which, in turn, allows readers to reflect on the absurdity and contradictions of the societal norms and values of his time. By satirizing these elements, he invites readers to reevaluate the established moral and social constructs of the 19th century, offering a critical lens through which to view the society of that era. 

Discuss William Dean Howell’s Self Sacrifice as a Farce-Through humor and satire, Howells prompts readers to consider the consequences of such social norms and to question the authenticity of self-sacrifice and moral virtue in a society marked by prejudice and hypocrisy.


Within his canon of works, William Dean Howells' "Self-Sacrifice" stands out as a brilliant comedy, departing from his customary realist manner to offer humour, satire, and social commentary. Howells deftly uses the traditional farcical components—such as ludicrous circumstances, misunderstandings, and humor—to craft a humorous story that mirrors 19th-century social mores and conventions.

The narrative exposes the duplicity of those who used moral and religious pretexts to cover up their self-serving behaviour, the class divides that gave rise to society prejudices, and the dominant gender norms that restricted women's autonomy through the character of Mrs. Dabney. In addition to providing entertainment, Howells' use of humour to highlight these important concerns encourages readers to consider the absurdities and contradictions present in the society of his day.

While "Self-Sacrifice" deviates from Howells' usual realism, it nevertheless demonstrates his versatility as a writer and his capacity to create compelling stories across a variety of genres. He skillfully blends humour with social commentary in this hilarious jewel, making "Self-Sacrifice" an unforgettable and timeless piece of American literature that enthrals readers and encourages critical analysis of the past and the human condition.


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