William Dean Howells addresses nature versus nurture in his book, An Imperative Duty, essentially by taking a Caucasian individual named Rhoda and turning her into an African-American. That is, Howells creates a person who looks white, has been raised to think she is white, and has been treated to accompany that race throughout her entire life, and then allows her to be informed that she has African-American blood. When she learns this information she is very nearly engaged, but the drastic change that her new heritage suggests makes her feel that she is no longer worthy of accepting a white man’s proposal. Rhoda's appearance, as well as her upbringing, is that of a white individual, but signs keep appearing that suggest her African-American heritage is dominant over her white upbringing. The question remains: is it nature or nurture that decides a person’s innate qualities? Howells seems to be advocating for nature.

Howells' use of Mrs. Meredith:

Mrs. Meredith is distraught throughout the book because she is the one individual harboring Rhoda’s enormous secret and feels it to be her ultimate obligation to tell Rhoda. Mrs. Meredith thinks that by keeping the secret of Rhoda's bloodline to herself, nobody will find out about unless she gives birth to a child that shows some traits of her African-American ancestry. Therefore, she asks Olney if he believes in atavism. “Do you believe in heredity?...You know! The persistence of ancestral traits” (52). Olney tells her that “the chances of atavism or reversion back to the black great-great-great-grandfather are so remote that they may be said not to exist at all” (54). This gives Mrs. Meredith hope that she may not have to tell Rhoda about her ancestors. Yet, in the end, she concludes that she cannot take the risk, as she says, “I wish I could believe what you say” (55) to Olney. Mrs. Meredith has only one option: to tell Rhoda about her ancestry.

Although Mrs. Meredith spends much of the novel contemplating not telling Rhoda, hoping that the part of her that was raised white will mask the qualities that come from her African-American heritage, significant moments of interaction between her and Rhoda reveal that she must. In conversation with Olney, Mrs. Meredith states, “I can hear it in her voice at times—it’s a black voice! I can see it in her looks! I can feel it in her character—so easy, so irresponsible, so fond of what is soft and pleasant!” (73) This shows clearly that Mrs. Meredith believes that nature, or innate traits, plays a significant role in Rhoda’s character. Interestingly, Mrs. Meredith see’s these signs in Rhoda, yet still desires and hopes that the qualities she presents will disappear with her offspring, therefore concealing her secret. After much contemplation and hopeful ranting, Mrs. Meredith's conscience cannot take the chance that those natural qualities will pass to each of Rhoda’s children.

Howells' use of Dr. Olney:

Howells portrays Olney’s view of Rhoda's situation as one of larger complexity. When he is first informed that Rhoda has “negro blood,” Howells writes that “He found himself personally disliking the notion of her having negro blood in her veins; before he felt pity he felt repulsion; his own race instinct expressed itself in a merciless rejection of her beauty, her innocence, her helplessness because of her race” (61). Here, Howells depicts a character that feels a notable level racial animosity. Pertinent to the social standards of the 19th century, Howells provides evidence that there exists individuals that harbor instincts that rejects someone because of their race. It is not until Olney overcomes the impulse that rejected Rhoda’s African-American side, that he could empathize with her situation and overpower his initial opinion. Yet, once Olney has gathered his wits and is able to see from a more open-minded perspective, his thoughts become less menacing. In an empathizing and accepting tone, he admits, “I do abhor the cruel stupidity that makes any race treat another as outcast” (63). Howells has created a well-rounded character that represents a "double-edged sword," as he portrays hatred toward the African-American race, but is educated enough, being a qualified medical practitioner, to understand that possessing African-American blood does not qualify an individual as an outcast. Howells use of Olney's racial opinion indicates that he believes nature is the ultimate factor in a person's innate behavior. Yet, by also portraying Olney as a character with high educational qualifications who concludes that ultimately Rhoda is an acceptable woman, the author is also noting the importance of racial understanding.

Howells' use of Rhoda:

The theme of Howell's novel is centered around Rhoda, the woman with first-hand experience of turning from a Caucasian to an African-American - without actually changing her innate qualities at all. It is explained by Mrs. Meredith that Rhoda was nurtured as any other white child would have been, as she states that “[Rhoda] had teachers and she had schools like any other child, and she had the companionships and the social advantages which our own station and money could command” (66). Howells makes it very clear that if, in fact, nurture creates a person’s innate qualities, Rhoda's upbringing would only render the habits of a white-bred individual. Furthermore, before Rhoda is enlightened about her heritage, Howells creates an encounter that seems to suggest signs of Rhoda’s heritage dominating over her white upbringing. In this part of the novel, Rhoda explains to Mrs. Meredith, “There’s one of those colored waiters down there that even you couldn’t have anything to say against my falling in love with” (76). This is significant and, it seems, written by Howells to show that nature, and a desire for things that correspond to innate desires, prevails. Although many would believe the comment previously stated to be insignificant and unimportant if spoken by a full-blooded Caucasian, Howells' story, dealing with the controversies of atavism, points to the advocating of nature prevailing over nurture. It seems, based on the context, Howells placed this quote in the book very purposefully.

Howells portrays Rhoda's stance on the issue of nature versus nurture very clearly as she asks, “I should like to know how I'm bound to my mother's family, that I never saw one of” (81). Here, Howells shows that even before Rhoda knew about the status of her heritage, she believed in nature and a "binding" bloodline as responsible for one’s innate qualities. After much hesitation, Mrs. Meredith finally decides that she must tell Rhoda the secret and, in response, Rhoda “faced her aunt with a sudden fierceness” in which “Mrs. Meredith saw...the outbreak of the ancestral savagery” (98). Again, Howells shows Rhoda reverting back to the ways thought of as common amongst those of her ancestry. All of these interactions clearly show Howells' advocation for nature as the domineering factor in deciding a person’s innate qualities.