Damnation or Illumination? A Review of The Damnation of Theron Ware

American literary canon, American literature, Harold Frederic, Illumination, American lit

The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic, is considered one of the classic novels of American literature. Published in 1896, it is a realistic portrayal of a Methodist pastor (Theron Ware) in upstate New York. Of note, the novel was also published with the title Illumination, which in some ways is a more accurate (if less dramatic) depiction of Ware’s travails. In modern terms, it is the story of a man in mid-life crisis, who makes some bad decisions when he finds himself in a new environment. But just as the proof is in the pudding, the tale is in the  telling…


To elaborate, the story depicts Ware – an up and coming pastor – coming into contact with sophisticated, self-directed people who are far smarter and worldly than he is. Ware, who is very much the simpleton, albeit a devout husband and pastor when the story starts, is enthralled by the people he meets in his new town and is so taken by their clever discussions and sophisticated insights, that he feels compelled to see the world around him in a new way, so he undertakes his own intellectual explorations. In doing so, he comes to question both his religion and his marriage. Misunderstanding his new-found mentors and friends, he comes to think snobbery and arrogance are a natural outgrowth of his newly found wisdom and understanding.

One of the strengths of this literary classic is the largely objective narration of the work. So though Ware is initially a likable, even admirable fellow, by the middle of the novel we sense that he is charging into quicksand, and doing so happily with no understanding of how he is enabling his own undoing.

In the middle of the story, he gets a stern warning from a hugely important character: Candace Soulsby. She endeavors to show him how to get back on track when she sees him faltering, but in Ware’s rush to increase his own worldliness and illumination, he fails to understand her guidance. Further confusing Ware, and ultimately the source and illuminator of his fall, is a young woman he fantasizes about as an escape from a dedicated wife whose love he no longer values.

Without spoiling the story, Ware continues his race to self-destruction, and in the end makes a fool out of himself to everyone engaged, to include the reader. Most important, he realizes he is both damned and illuminated, thus the two titles.

Frederic cleverly designs the story so Ware’s disintegration can plausibly be hidden, or at least minimized to many of those closest to him. So in the end, what exactly becomes of Ware, is unknown. Though stitched back together in the short term, Ware and his wife move on to a new place to start anew, although in a different profession. As the reader, you will have to pick which of the two titles is more fitting as you speculate as to his final standing.

To 21st-century readers, the writing is wordy, and there are “POV shifts” that students in modern writing workshops would hold up as examples of an inept writer. Whatever.

The novel has several compelling strengths that make it worth reading.

First, the whole is enabled by very clearly drawn and very distinct characters. Unlike much modern fiction, these are not simplistic good guys and bad guys, conniving politicians, loyal spouses, greedy CEOs. These are real people – much like live in your neighborhood today – who have their own motivation and fears, strengths and weakness, skills and failings. And they make mistakes and decisions based on bad judgment. The richness of the story starts with this mix of deep and thoughtfully created and realistic characters that then start interacting in ways that lead to one man’s illumination. If there were no other reason to read this classic novel – and you are a student of fiction or wish to write your own some day – this is reason enough.

Second, it is realistically presented with nuanced details that make every scene easy to envision. Yes, the long sentences can get tedious at times, but the payoff is a detailed vision of each scene through which you can follow the characters. And though it is a realistic depiction of America 120 years ago, change the props and it could just as easily be 2016.

In one sense, it is hard to write a review of a 120-year-old novel that is often considered part of the canon of American literature. No doubt there have been doctoral dissertations and masters thesis written about it, not to mention the probably tens of thousands of undergraduate papers. But the joy of classic literature is that it remains fresh and relevant. There will be more people who become disoriented in new circumstances and make bad decisions. For readers, this is a well told and dramatic tale. For aspiring writers, how Frederic told his tale is worth contemplating.

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Damnation or Illumination?
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Damnation or Illumination?
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The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic, is considered one of the great novels of American literature. Published in 1896, it is a realistic portrayal of a Methodist pastor (Theron Ware) as a man in mid-life crisis, who makes some bad decisions when he finds himself in a new environment.
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2 thoughts on “Damnation or Illumination? A Review of The Damnation of Theron Ware”

  1. Interesting — I’d heard of this story, but never knew what it was about.

    I like your point about reviewing the classics. We can’t all be experts who’ve read all the critical literature — but a good story is always fresh to a new reader, and coming to it fresh may bring a new perspective.

    1. Hey Rick, Yes! And it is a great read…In fact, I re-read the pivotal chapter last night on a plane to better understand exactly how Frederic pulled it off. Very smart writing including a clever, meticulously-built setup.

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