“Human life is sacred,” he said sententiously.
“Ah, that must have been decreed by someone who had never suffered!” Justine exclaimed.
The Fruit of the Tree is a departure from most Edith Wharton novels that deal with the superficiality and hypocrisy of the lives of the upper class. While that plays a role here, the novel concentrates on the life of factory assistant manager, John Amherst, whose interest in bettering the conditions of the workers put him at odds with the wealthy owners. He is in a constant battle of explaining the evils of exploitation and the benefits of humane working conditions to the Westmore family who are not supportive
Now, young Richard Westmore, the owner of the mills, has died and his wife is named heir and overseer. When John Amherst and Bessy Westmore meet for the first time, he takes her on a tour of the factory and she meets some of the laborers. As they explain their jobs she sees through Amherst’s explanations that the dangers they are confronted with could be mediated by more updated equipment and a different philosophy of production. She is shocked by a recent accident on the factory line that left a young family man hospitalized, whose livelihood is now in jeopardy. John continues to speak of the morality of a working environment that is clean and safe, where the workers don’t have to come in sick because they have medical care or worry about their babies due to onsite child care and where adult education gives them opportunity for advancement.
As John and Bessy fall in love it is more than an opportunist’s dream for John who is convinced he has turned Bessy from a disinterested carefree young woman to his partner in humanizing the lives of the people she has become responsible for. But the first blush of altruism for Bessy begins to fade when she realizes the time that must be spent “working” though she is still supportive of John’s aims and goals.
When Bessy’s childhood friend, the idealistic nurse Justine Brent, meets John at the bedside of an injured worker conflict arises between the three.
The marriage between John and Bessy is never peaceful. Bessy’s business advisors, friends of her deceased first husband, are always at odds with John’s plans for the factory and are constantly challenging her to stop him. They tell her that she should be concerned with the financial outlay and that John’s ideas do not guarantee a return on the money. When a horse riding accident puts her life in jeopardy any support for John and the factory wanes. John never loses his motivation for reform, though, and tries to press on. He has also lost the encouragement of Justine whose own life takes a turn when she makes a devastating decision prompting her to leave.
Wharton tackles many social and personal issues in this novel. One in particular reminds me of The House of Mirth. Without giving away an important plot twist, she has a character deal with the problem of chronic pain and the medical use of drugs. When Wharton was writing The House of Mirth she went to a chemist to understand sleeping draughts and their potency. She asked how a person would know to increase the dosage without killing themself. While the question in that novel considers a death by suicide or natural causes, the question in this novel is the morality euthanasia.
Wharton always draws her characters with such depth. It is easy to understand, though not always easy to agree on their motivations and here it is no different. John Amherst is committed to factory reform against all the odds thrown at him. Bessy grew up a typical materialistic girl, but has a big heart that has been opened to the inequities of real life. She struggles to do the right thing, but it is not easy for her, especially after she understands that John’s commitment to his beliefs infringe upon the luxuries she is accustomed to. Justine just wants everyone to be treated fairly, but comes up against the harsh lessons that being a woman of the working class entails. Suffice it to say, there is no happy ending for anyone in this novel, but perhaps with the passage time all the roughness with will smooth out….
But life is not a matter of abstract principles, but a succession of pitiful compromises with fate, of concessions to old traditions, old beliefs, old charities and frailties….And she had humbled herself to accept the lesson, seeing human relations at last as a tangled and deep-rooted growth, a dark forest through which the idealist cannot cut his straight path without hearing at each stroke the cry of the severed branch, “Why wounded thou me?”
Her world, in short, had been chiefly peopled by the dull or the crude, and, hemmed in between the two, she had created for herself an inner kingdom where the fastidiousness she had to set aside in her outward relations recovered its full sway. There must be actual beings worthy of admission to the secret precinct, but hither to they had not come her way; and the sense that they were somewhere just out of reach still gave an edge of youthful curiosity to each encounter with a new group of people.
“I’ve no head for business—but I will try to.”
“It’s not business that I mean; it’s the personal relationship—just the thing the business point of view leaves out. Financially, I don’t suppose your mills could be better run; but there are over seven hundred women working in them, and there’s so much to be done, just for them and their children.”
“I have always understood that Mr. Truscomb did everything—“
“Do you leave it to your little girl’s nurses to do everything for her?”
Title: The Fruit of the Tree
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Northeastern University Press
Device: Trade Paperback
Challenges: Edith Wharton Project, Mount TBR