The Wide, Wide World

The Wide, Wide World

Lauren, Monica, Tyler, Alex, Sean

The Wide, Wide World is a sentimental novel based on the life of young Ellen Montgomery. The plot of The Wide, Wide World focuses on Ellen’s journey to find God and happiness once torn away from her mother. Ellen is a young, sweet girl who is dependant on her mother for happiness. After Ellen learns that her father must go overseas for financial reasons and that her mother, because of her health problems, must go with him, she can seem to find solace in nothing. Her mother tries to teach her to trust in the Lord, as do others she meets on her journey to live with her father’s stern sister, Fortune Emerson. Mistreated quite often, Ellen is miserable living with Aunt Fortune, but finds comfort in the likes of Mr. Van Brunt, the farm manager, and especially in Alice Humphreys, the daughter of a local minister. Alice treats Ellen like a sister, and becomes a source of spiritual guidance for Ellen, helping her find her way to becoming a true Christian.


This novel includes a wide variety of characters:
  • Ellen Montgomery: Quite young at the beginning of the story, Ellen finds happiness only in her mother. Once taken from her mother, she tries desperately to please her memory by becoming Christian. Ellen is proper and kind and everything a young girl should be.
  • Mrs. Montgomery: Plagued with health problems, Mrs. Montgomery finds comfort only in Ellen and in 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.
  • Captain Montgomery: : Ellen’s negligent father who was away from home a lot, and felt little sympathy for his daughter or his wife after forcing them to be separated.
  • Fortune Emerson: Captain Montgomery’s half-sister, she 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.
  • Mr. Van Brunt: Fortune’s farm hand. He is intimidating at first, though Ellen learns to love him. He feels kindly towards Ellen and in many instances sticks up for Ellen when her Aunt mistreats her.
  • Alice Humphrey: The kind and gentle daughter of a minister, she becomes Ellen’s companion and spiritual counselor, helping Ellen to find solace in the Lord while living with Aunt Fortune.
  • Nancy Vawse: A girl who lives not far from Ellen with her Grandmother, she is thought by most to be a bad sort of girl. She enjoys teasing Ellen.
  • John Humphreys: Alice’s brother, who she speaks of often. A handsome and charming young man, he offers to be as a brother to Ellen, as his sister is as a sister to Ellen’s sister.


This book was originally written with the goal of teaching people a Christian lesson, so many of the themes are Christian in nature and aim to show people how a true Christian ought to live his or her life.
  • One of themes present in Wide, Wide World is is that everything in life, even the bad things, is caused by God and leads to something good. Ellen is very sad when she learns that her mother must leave, but reminds herself that the trip will make her mother healthy again. When she goes to the store to try and buy some merino cloth, she meets a salesman who treats her very badly and makes her cry, but as a result she gets to know a generous old gentleman who provides her with certain things for her trip that she might not have gotten otherwise. On the steamboat, the other girls make fun of Ellen and send her crying off to another part of the boat, but through this she met a man who teaches her many things about Christianity. After getting to her aunt's house, Ellen takes a walk with Nancy, even though Aunt Fortune warns her to stay away from her, and ends up falling into an ice-cold brook. However, this reminds her that Aunt Fortune was right when she said Nancy was a bad girl, she ends up meeting Mrs. Van Brunt, a warm-hearted lady, and gets reassured that there are nice people in this world. Through this theme, Susan Warner wanted people to see that God did not send misery upon his children for no reason, but used suffering as a means to bring them closer to Him.
  • Another theme present in the novel is that there are always good people present among the bad folks. Mr. Saunders, a cold-hearted clerk, is contrasted with an old gentleman who is very kind to Ellen. Captain Montgomery, a man who doesn't seem to care much for his daughter or her mother, is married to Mrs. Montgomery, a kind woman who loves Ellen with all of her heart. Ellen is forced to travel with Mrs. Dunscombe and her daughters, who find pleasure in mocking Ellen and her less-than-ideal clothes. After leaving them, Ellen meets a young man who spends lots of time with Ellen, teaching her about becoming a Christian and sincerely caring for the little girl. Aunt Fortune, who makes it obvious that Ellen is unwanted at her house, lives close to Mrs. Van Brunt, an older woman who cares for Ellen and acts kindly to her. This seems to be saying that even though a person might be surrounded with bad people who make everyone around them suffer, there are still many kind people in this world that will offer their help when the time comes.
  • A third theme that is present in this book is that those who desire to grow spiritually will receive the help of God if they honestly have that desire. When talking to her mother before the parting, Ellen is determined to live a perfect, Christian life and be an example for everyone around her. However, as soon as she gets on the boat, she discovers that her heart holds negative feelings towards the people around her. After meeting the Christian man on the boat, she realizes how hard her heart is, and her desire to live a good life is rekindled. She fails at this again, however, when she gets to Aunt Fortune's house, where she directly disobeys her aunt and throws fits when things aren't done to her liking. But she realizes her mistakes and wants to be good, and God sends her a young woman who acts as a spiritual guide for the girl. Through this, Warner was telling people not to give up when they made mistakes, and showing how God comes to those who seek him.


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

  • Ellen’s mother leaving for France 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.

  • 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, super-ceding her love for her mother.

  • 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 Fortunes 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.


Some predictions for the book are hinted at from the beginning. Ellen’s relationship with her mamma in the beginning of the book was created around a love so deep and strong that it would seem nothing could come between the two, however, we know that once Ellen leaves, she will never see her mother again, and her mother knows too. When Ellen is leaving finally to go to her aunt’s house, her mother knows that the moment she held Ellen then would be her last. Another prediction would be that Ellen will learn to love Jesus above all else. Many times Ellen is asked whether or not she loves her Lord best, and she has to answer that she loves her mother more. Based on Ellen’s love for her mother and careful adherence to her mother’s words, it is safe to say that the girl will learn to love Jesus best because her mother told her that it will increase her ability to love others, as well as the man on the boat said. It can also be assumed that Ellen will learn how to live with and ultimately love those she did not once get along with, such as Miss Fortune. Through Ellen’s devotion to and love for her beloved Bible and the help and instruction of her friends, Ellen will likely mature into a young lady of exemplary Christianity.

The Author's Writing Style

In assessing Warner's style in The Wide, Wide World, I found the three main aspects which created Warner's particular writing style. -The first aspect is the time in which Wide, Wide World was written. With Webster furthering the development of the American dialect when he published the first American dictionary in 1828, America was still gaining its own literary voice in 1850 when 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." (9) The Wide, Wide World also begins horrendously slow, a trait that is characteristic of much of the literature of the mid 19th century. -The next aspect of Warner's style is that Wide, Wide World is a paradigm of sentimentalist literature. The conflict and action of this story is 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,” (15) are within a four page stretch within which Ellen cries on five separate occasions, displaying how sentimental Warner’s style was. -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.

Links to Additional References

Warner, Susan. The Wide Wide World. New York: The Feminist Press, 1987.
Image from: Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities

We, Tyler Mangrum, Lauren Lamson, Monica Ward, Sean Hendrix and Alex V,, are the authors of this article, The Wide, Wide World wiki on for Spring Quarter '07, and we release its content under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 and later.