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In the story of The Lost Phoebe, Theodore Dreiser writes a story about a man and his wife. Dreiser tells so much about the man’s childhood and early adulthood because he was showing the reader how Henry Reifsneider was doomed to suffer in isolation at the end of his life. The man, Henry Reifsneider, had lived with someone all his life. He lived with his parents until he fell in love. When Henry fell in love, and decided to get married, his parents invited his bride-to-be to live with him. Henry married Phoebe when he was just twenty-one years old and .had been married for forty-eight years. He also continued to live with his parents until they passed away ten years after his marriage to Phoebe. Their death probably would have been the first time that he had to deal with the idea of people, in which he cared a great deal for, leaving his life forever. Dreiser does not mention anything about other people, such as grandparents so it would be unknown to the reader if he ever knew them. He lived with Phoebe for forty-eight years until her death, this was, probably the worst goodbye this man had ever had to endure.
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Forty eight years of marriage yielded seven children. Three of his children had passed away, further setting the scene for this poor man’s isolation. The rest of these children had moved away to other cities, some other states. It seems as if there was no time in his life that he was alone until the death of his wife.
Phoebe became sick when she was sixty-four years old. The disease she came down with might have been curable if it was not for her age. He followed her body to her resting place consumed with grief and uncertain as to what he should do next, or what the rest of his days would bring. Even though his children and friends asked him to come and stay with him and let them take care of him, he was so set in his ways that he would not dare to budge. The next couple of months were spent dwelling on her death. He will not leave his home and could not care less if there were visitors to the home. He knows that it will soon be his turn to die and it seems, to me anyway, that he welcomed death. He could again be with his love only if he passed away. Henry gradually started to put his wife’s things away, but five months after her death a change had begun in him and his isolation had gotten the better of him. Late one night, after a particularly restless night, shapes in his house began to take the shape of his wife. Of course, when he went to “her” he found that it was all in his imagination. Shortly, he thought he saw her in the yard.
When his Phoebe was alive he would accuse her of moving his things. She would always have the same come back of telling him that if he continued to accuse her of these things that she was going to leave him. She would also claim that he would never find her if she did decide to leave. It did not take long for his mess up mind to think that she had, in fact, made good on his promises. Since he had packed up some of her things, it gave his dementia the reasoning it needed to support his claim. In his mind, he had not packed her things away, she had packed her things.
The first place he went to look for his wife was at her friend’s house, Mrs. Race. He told her friend that he and his Phoebe had gotten in an argument and had left in the middle of the night. She, of course, realizes, that he has lost his mind without his dear Phoebe and tries to go along with his mad fantasy, so that she could keep him there until someone could get there to help this poor man. He would not stay any longer. He was a man on a mission; he would find her and bring her home. He walked around all day asking anyone who would listen if they had seen his wife and telling them the same story. Someone did call the authorities, but the authorities dismissed him as being a harmless old man, who would be in less danger to himself if they had left him to walk the miles he did ever day than if they put him in some sort of hospital or nursing home. Most of the county knew who he was and pitied him. His neighbors would do their best to take care of him, feed him and whatever they can do for him.
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As the years go by, Henry loses his mind more and more. Dreiser skips ahead three years. In this three years Henry has spent the entire day, every day walking miles and miles looking for his dead wife. His mind is so gone that he believes that she left him on purpose while everyone else knows his wife, Phoebe is dead. If he could only find her he believes he could convince her to come home. No one knows how he handled the cold weather, the rain, or other harsh weather. I suppose his love for his wife and hope that he would find out where she had gone would have carried him through the bad weather or it could have been part of his mental illness.
In the end the apathetic views of Henry Reifsneider cost Henry his life. One night the old man thought he saw his wife. She looked as she was fifty five years before. He had walked off a cliff and was found laying at the bottom with a smile on his face. He had found his lost Phoebe, as he had promised her he would do if she ever left him.
The story of The Lost Phoebe is a perfect example of the new ideas in psychology that influenced the Modernist movement. Theodore Dreiser was interested in the chaotic view of man and it truly shows in this story.
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