Author Henry Adams
Author Name Variants Frances S. Compton; Frances Snow Compton
Publication New York: Henry Holt, 1884.
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Genres Novel
Keywords Bildungsroman, Education, Life Writing, Philosophy & Religion, Reform, Science & Invention
Contributing State Massachusetts
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Chloe Fromm
University of New Orleans, December 2015

            Henry Adams’s novel Esther was published in 1884 and donated by the Massachusetts delegate to the Women’s Exhibit at the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair. Esther is a particularly interesting inclusion in the exhibit because a woman did not write it: Adams published it under the pen name Frances Snow Compton. Since Esther was written by a man about a woman it provides a different perspective on femininity and the female experience than what would have been illustrated by a woman.

            Some scholars approach Esther as biographical fiction, because its protagonist bears a “marked resemblance” to Adams’s wife, Marion Hooper Adams, nicknamed Clover (Stevenson 171). Clover was a highly educated woman who participated in intellectual circles with her husband, but was plagued by depression and eventually committed suicide. Looking at Esther in relation to Clover makes the novel read as Adams’s attempt to understand the inner workings of his wife’s tortured mind in relation to the times. Unfortunately, as most critics have agreed, Adams fails to examine the burden that societal pressures placed on women, instead shifting his attention to a battle between Darwinian and Christian belief.

            Set in 1880 New York, Esther chronicles the lives of George Strong, a professor of paleontology; Stephen Hazard, an Episcopal priest; and Esther Dudley, an artist. Stephen, George, and Esther become entangled in a love triangle that has more to do with the debate between science and religion than with love. In the beginning of the novel, Adams casts Esther as an intelligent, well-educated woman considered an equal among the male characters, but her ferocity as a character drastically declines in the second half of the novel with her engagement to Stephen. The once strong-minded woman becomes a lovesick mess. Esther, no longer an equal, is treated with the same respect as a delicate child. She needs to be looked after, coddled, and taken away from the big city. Adams begins his novel with a strong female protagonist, but ends it by making her a victim to the debate between science and religion. Instead of creating a critique of the confines of marriage, Adams uses Esther as a vehicle for illustrating the backwardness of religious doctrine in a secular age.

            Henry Adams graduated from Harvard and began a literary career in political journalism after the American Civil War. He was also a professor of history at Harvard and wrote an impressive number of nonfiction works on the United States. He is best known for History of the United States of America (1801-1807), also known as The History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1888), and his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (1907) for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1919. In addition, Adams wrote two works anonymously, Democracy (1880) and Esther (1884). Adams married his wife, Marion Hooper, in 1872. After a year abroad, they moved to Boston, then to Washington D.C. in 1877, where they started an exclusive circle of intellectuals known as the Five of Hearts Musto 270). In 1912, days after he learned of the sinking of the Titanic, he suffered a stroke. He recovered, but died in his sleep in 1918 at his home in Washington, D.C.

Works Cited

Musto, David F. “‘Heart’s Blood’: Henry Adams’s Esther and Wife Clover.” The New England
Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 2, 1998, pp. 266–281. JSTOR,
Stevenson, Elizabeth. Henry Adams: A Biography. 2nd ed., Transaction Publishers, 1997.
Wolfe, Patrick. “The Revealing Fiction of Henry Adams.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 49,
no. 3, 1976, pp. 399–426. JSTOR,