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Dr. Joyce Kinkead on Their Yesterdays
Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.  

<<< continued from previous page.        

Each goes through what Wright considers the thirteen great facets in life:  dreams, occupation, knowledge, ignorance, religion, tradition, temptation, life, death, failure, success, love, and memories.  Each chapter concentrates on one of these aspects and is divided to show the points of view of the man and woman.  The split point of view technique is the most interesting characteristic of the novel; it represents a departure from the normal Wright method of telling a story.

            Beginning when both characters have reached adulthood and are alone in the world, the first chapter introduces the man and the woman as they dream of the past and future.  They are about to begin their occupations.  The man works very hard at his job and in the second chapter receives notice by his employer; the woman, because she is not married, must also seek work, thus becoming what Wright believes is a second class citizen to the wife.  Though she has marriage proposals, she refuses to marry without love.

            The characters next discover knowledge--not education, but experience.  He finds that "knowledge is not knowing about a thing but knowing the thing."[1]  In contrast, the woman does not desire education, for she already knows the secret of life.  She wants instead "the prouder dependence of a true womanhood" which rests on trust, faith, belief, and emotion (Yesterdays, p. 88).  With the attainment of knowledge, the man comes to understand the value of ignorance.  The wise person is one who can confess ignorance and say, "I do not know" (Yesterdays, p. 106).  He also realizes that he regrets some of the things he knows, and forgetting is often more difficult than remembering (Yesterdays, p. 110).  Religion provides the foundation and stability for the man's and the woman's characters though they momentarily doubt their faith.  In the chapter on tradition the man comes to understand the barrier of "established customs and habits" which resist new ideas (Yesterdays, p. 166).  On the other hand, the woman is dissatisfied with changes and an age that scorns tradition (Yesterdays, p. 182).  Through her, Wright criticizes fads and the women's movement, insisting that the true woman is a mother and wife.  In fact, the woman who prefers a career to being a mother is a woman to be pitied (Yesterdays, p. 186).

            The man and woman are next led into temptation.  He is tested by a woman who works with him and "lures" him with her sex (Yesterdays, p. 197).  He almost submits to her challenge but is saved by the pristine kiss of his landlady's young daughter who reminds him of the little girl from the past (Yesterdays, p. 205).  The man's counterpart is tempted by an offer of marriage from her kind foreman.  She, thinking that she may never have another chance at marriage, decides to accept his proposal until she compares herself to the prostitutes who "sell themselves to all men for a price" (Yesterdays, p. 211); then, she rejects his offer and decides to remain employed though she fells that being employed is lowlier than being a wife.

            The man discovers the joy of life during Christmas, while the woman is depressed during her holiday because she is not fulfilling her desire to be a wife and mother.  The reality of death comes to them when the man survives a train wreck, but the engineer, who was the girl's uncle, dies (Yesterdays, pp. 247-49).  They realize that they are merely mortals and that death is not the mock funeral they played during their youth.

            The next two chapters center on the dichotomy of failure and success.  The man fails at his work, but with his eventual success, he finds the value of failure, for "a good strong failure is the corner stone [sic] of a well builded [sic] life" (Yesterdays, p. 267).  For a woman, "love and success are one" (Yesterdays, p. 296).  The couple rediscover each other while they coincidentally vacation at their old hometown, fall in love, and marry.  Their childhood memories influence the two during their passage through the thirteen great things in life as each great thing stimulates a relating childhood memory.

            One reviewer notes that Their Yesterdays is "Scarcely fiction, but rather a vaguely personalized sermon upon the intimate affairs of mind and heart and soul that are common to all the sons and daughters of man."[2]  Although Wright in his novels is essentially a preacher, he is also a good story teller.  In this novel he deletes the characters' names as well as pertinent facts about them and specific story details.  Instead, he generalizes, and when there is an opportunity to tell any specific detail (how the young man achieves his success, for example), he says, "I do not know" or "that is not my story" (Yesterdays, p. 286).  This lack of detail is frustrating for the reader who is accustomed to Wright's or any other author's ability to tell detailed stories.  His other novels which incorporate the theme of achieving virtuous character have interesting plots, and they succeed.  This novel's didactic but straightforward lesson on how to achieve success fails.  The reviewer who assumes that Their Yesterdays will be another success simply because it is written by Wright is mistaken.  Fortunately for his public, Wright realized his error and in his next book returned to his familiar method of plot.


Back to Their Yesterdays


    [1]Harold Bell Wright, Their Yesterdays (Chicago:  Book Supply, 1912), p. 72.  Subsequent references to this book will be incorporated into the body of the text as Yesterdays and pagination.

    [2]"A Personalized Sermon," rev. of Their Yesterdays, by Harold Bell Wright, New York Times Book Review, 8 Sept. 1912, p. 491.

            Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.  

 

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