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The Wide, Wide World
The wide wide world Frontispiece.jpg
Frontispiece from an 1853 edition
Author Susan Warner
Country United States
Language English
Genre Novel
Publication date
Media type Print

The Wide, Wide World is an 1850 novel by Susan Warner, published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Wetherell. It is often acclaimed as America's first bestseller.


The Wide, Wide World is a work of sentimentalism about the life of young Ellen Montgomery. The story begins with Ellen's happy life being disrupted by the fact that her mother is very ill and her father must take her to Europe, requiring Ellen to leave home to live with an almost-unknown aunt. Though Ellen tries to act strong for her mother's sake, she is devastated and can find solace in nothing.

Eventually the day comes when Ellen must say goodbye to her mother and travel in the company of strangers to her aunt's home. Unfortunately these strangers are unkind to Ellen and she tries to leave the boat on which they are traveling. An old man sees Ellen crying and tells her to trust in God. He teaches her about being a Christian, as her mother had done, and asks her if she is ready to give her heart to Jesus. After talking with the man, Ellen becomes determined to become a true Christian, which gives her strength for the rest of the journey to her aunt's place in Thirwall.

On Ellen's first night in Thirwall, she learns that her father forgot to inform her aunt that she was coming, so a "Mr. Van Brunt" escorts her to her aunt's home. This aunt, Fortune Emerson, proves to be quite different from Ellen's loving mother: she treats Ellen unkindly and refuses to let her attend school. Ellen hates living with Fortune and comes to find comfort in the society of Mr. Van Brunt and other neighbors as she becomes more familiar with her new surroundings.

One day, discovering that her aunt withheld a letter from Mrs. Montgomery, Ellen runs crying into the woods. There she meets Alice Humphreys, the daughter of a local minister. Alice is kind to Ellen and invites her to tea the next day, to give Ellen a chance to tell her troubles; maybe Alice would be able to help. The girls become fast friends and Alice adopts Ellen as a sister, offering to educate her and guide her spiritually, teaching her to forgive others and trust in the Lord.

Alice and her brother John, who is away at school much of the time, treat Ellen like family, even inviting her to spend Christmas in the nearby town of Ventnor with them and their friends, the Marshmans. While there, Ellen meets another Ellen, Ellen Chauncey. She also gets better acquainted with John Humphreys, who comforts her many times after the other children tease her. Ellen comes to realize that if she hadn't needed to be separated from her mother, she might never have met Alice and John.

About a year later, one day when Ellen visits town, she overhears from some ladies' conversation that her mother has died. Devastated, she turns to Alice and her Bible for comfort. She stays with Alice and John until Aunt Fortune becomes ill and Ellen must look after her. Eventually Aunt Fortune recovers and Ellen returns to Alice and her other friends.

After Mr. Van Brunt's mother dies, he decides to marry Aunt Fortune; soon after, Alice tells Ellen that she is very ill and will soon be "going home" to Heaven; Ellen is not to grieve for her but to trust in God. She also invites Ellen to take her place in the Humphreys household. Ellen immediately moves in and begins by nursing Alice through her final weeks. After Alice dies, Ellen turns to John for guidance. He takes over as her tutor, spiritual advisor, and guiding light. By the time a Humphreys relative dies in England and John must travel overseas to handle the family's business, Ellen (though sad to see him go) is a stronger person.

One day Nancy visits Ellen, bringing letters she has found while cleaning Fortune's house. They are for Ellen from her mother and express the wish that Ellen go live with relatives in Scotland; after sharing the letters with Mr. Humphreys, Ellen decides she must honor her parents' wishes so the Humphreys send her to Scotland to live with the Lindsays: her grandmother and uncle Lindsay and Lady Keith. They welcome her into their home and find her delightful, but they become very possessive of her and force her to denounce her identity as an American and as a Montgomery. Mr. Lindsay even makes Ellen call him “father” and refers to her as his “own little daughter.” The Lindsays also discourage Ellen's faith, as they don’t see religion as being important to someone Ellen's age. Ellen finds it hard to live without her daily hours set aside for studying religion, but still tries hard to live by her faith and everything that John and Alice taught her.

Ellen misses John more than anything, and during a New Year's Eve party at the Lindsays', he shows up asking for her. The Lindsays try to keep them apart, but they are unsuccessful. During their emotional reunion John reminds Ellen to keep her faith; in a few years, when she will be able to choose where she lives, she can return to America and live with him. When Ellen introduces John to the Lindsays, they actually become fond of him. John must soon return to America, but not without promising Ellen that they will be together forever soon. In an unpublished chapter at the end of the book, Ellen returns to America as Mrs. John Humphreys.


Primary Characters:

  • Ellen Montgomery: The story's protagonist. Young and naïve at the story's beginning, Ellen lives happily with her mother as her sole companion and teacher. After being torn away from her mother, Ellen struggles to learn to love God and live a Christian life in the face of adversity.
  • Mrs. Montgomery: Ellen's mother. Plagued with health problems, Mrs. Montgomery finds comfort only in Ellen and God. Although unable to perform many of the duties of a mother and wife, she does her best to teach Ellen about God and how to be a lady.
  • Fortune Emerson: Captain Montgomery's half-sister is stern and unfeeling towards Ellen from the beginning. She refuses to let Ellen attend school and even withholds her mother's letter from Ellen.
  • Alice Humphreys: Daughter of a minister. Kind and gentle, she becomes Ellen's companion and spiritual counselor and helps Ellen find solace in the Lord while living with Aunt Fortune. Eventually Alice becomes sick and dies, but not before teaching Ellen to learn to trust in God.
  • John Humphreys: Alice's beloved brother. A handsome and charming young man, he becomes as close as a brother to Ellen (as Alice becomes as close as a sister). After Alice's death, John becomes Ellen's guide through the world, teaching her how to be a good Christian and a good person.
  • The Lindsays: Ellen's family on her mother's side. Grandmother Lindsay; and Mr. Lindsay and Lady Keith, Ellen's uncle and aunt; adopt her readily into their family but become extremely possessive of her and make her denounce her identity as an American and a Montgomery. They also discourage Ellen's devotion to her faith.

Secondary Characters

  • Captain Montgomery: Ellen's negligent father was often away from home and felt little sympathy for wife or daughter during their forced separation.
  • Mr. Van Brunt: Fortune's farmhand. He is intimidating at first, though Ellen learns to love him. He feels kindly towards Ellen, often defending her when her aunt mistreats her.
  • Nancy Vawse: A girl who lives nearby with her grandmother, she is thought by most to be "a bad sort"; though Ellen doesn't like her at first, she proves later to be a better person.
  • Mrs. Vawse: Nancy's grandmother, a kindly old lady who lives on a mountain. She teaches French to Ellen and Alice and later cares for Ellen after Alice dies and John returns to school.
  • Mr. Humphreys: Alice and John's father, a local minister. He is a quiet man who keeps to himself, though Ellen becomes like a daughter to him and comforts him after Alice dies.
  • The Marshmans: Humphreys-family friends who live in a nearby town. They are kind to Ellen and treat her well when she is with them.
  • Ellen Chauncey: A young girl Ellen meets while staying with the Marshmans.
  • Margery: Alice's loyal servant who came from England with the Humphreys. She helps Ellen learn to take Alice's place in the household.


The driving conflict of this story is the separation of Ellen from her mother and the effects of this separation on Ellen, including how she misses the mother who had meant everything to her, how she struggles with being a good Christian, and how she deals with people who don’t care about her.

  • Woman vs. Self

As a work of sentimentalist literature, the conflict created by the story is dealt with almost entirely through the emotional response that Ellen has to the conditions in which she is put in the novel. In this, the main conflicts that Ellen encounters deals with how she can internally deal with each of the emotional problems she is met with in a way that is characteristic of strength and perseverance.

  • Woman vs. Nature

Ellen's mother leaving for France due to her sickness is the conflict which sets the entire narrative in motion, which occurs at the very start of the story. The first few chapters deal with how Ellen prepares to cope with the separation while simultaneously ensuring that, on the advice of the doctor, she refrains from causing any extra stress or fatigue on her mother. After her departure, Ellen must come to terms with being able to survive without the one person who truly cared for her.

  • Woman vs. God

With her mother's departure, Ellen finds herself doubting God's intentions, and struggles with the idea that she must love God despite the hardships he has given her, chiefly being separated from her mother, and attempt to come to terms with the idea that God has separated Ellen from her mother and sent her to her aunt in order to be taught that strong faith in God is the most important aspect in her life, over and above her love for her mother.

  • Woman vs. Society

Most of the personal conflicts with other characters are also dealt with in the internal manner, chiefly the struggles Ellen has in dealing with her callous and uncaring Aunt Fortune, who shows no sympathy for Ellen's sadness in being detached from her mother immediately upon meeting. Aunt Fortune's disregard for the feelings of Ellen leads to most of the external turmoil Ellen faces in the first half of the book, including her indifference to allow Ellen to go to school.

Literary Style

There are three main aspects which created Warner's particular writing style in The Wide, Wide World. The first aspect is the time in which the book was written. With Webster having furthered the development of the American dialect with his 1828 publication of the first American dictionary, America was still gaining its own literary voice in 1850 when The Wide, Wide World was published.

It is readily apparent from the first page that this novel's style is archaic with lines such as "Driven thus to her own resources, Ellen betook herself to the window and sought amusement there."

The next aspect of Warner's style is that The Wide, Wide World is also a didactic piece. Warner's style was aimed at giving an accurate portrayal of the social limitations imposed upon nineteenth-century women, and aimed at promoting the benefits of Christian morality. The Wide, Wide World was republished in 1987 by the Feminist Press, showing the claims it holds to furthering gender equality. And one can see that Warner's style was aimed at promoting Christian morals because one of the main themes of this novel is about finding strength in religious devotion.

The Wide, Wide World is a paradigm of sentimentalist literature. The conflict and action of this story are largely introverted within the protagonist Ellen. The lines “Dressing was sad work to Ellen today; it went on very heavily. Tears dropped into the water as she stooped her head to the basin,” are found in a four-page stretch within which Ellen cries on five separate occasions, displaying how sentimental Warner's style was.

Along with being a piece of sentimentalist literature, the work is considered an example of the domestic novel. The Wide, Wide World adheres to the basic plot of most women's fiction novels of the time, which, as Nina Baym describes the genre in Woman's Fiction, involves "the story of a young girl who is deprived of the supports she had rightly or wrongly depended on to sustain her throughout life and is faced with the necessity of winning her own way in the world.”

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