The Fruit of the Tree, Edith Wharton (1907)

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.

Thoughts
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
Date: 1907
Device: Trade Paperback
Pages: 633

Challenges: Edith Wharton Project, Mount TBR

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton (1905)

housemirth

 

You asked me just now for the truth—well, the truth about any girl is that once she’s talked about she’s done for; and the more she explains her case the worse it looks. 

 

Though Lily Bart didn’t grow up rich, she was born into a comfortable and respectable home with relatives high on the social scale. Like most girls in this class her only purpose in life is to find a wealthy, respected husband. Lily doesn’t just have hopes this will happen, she is very good at making it happen.

But it all comes crashing down when her father makes a series of bad business deals leaving her at the mercy of relatives and friends. Her luck holds out longer than many in this situation, because her beauty and charm is sought after and admired in her ‘set’ who continue to include her in their social gatherings, weekend outings and trips abroad.

Because her future is dependent on whom she marries Lily, like all women of her class, must calculate and weigh every conversation, each action and event she makes. She becomes a keen observer of the most minute details of what is socially acceptable and there are so many! One wrong word or action, one misinterpreted conversation or negative comment against her or showing too much interest in a man or not enough, can have devastating consequences.

The Power of Gossip and Lies

When the gossip about Lily and the unfounded lies begin to run rampant, the same friends who welcomed her into their world at her father’s death, abandon her and are willing to watch her fall rather than come to her defense and risk damaging their own reputations. As Mr. Rosedale admits to her,

Mrs. Dorset…did you a beastly bad turn last spring. Everybody knows what Mrs. Dorset is, and her best friends wouldn’t believe her on oath where their own interests were concerned; but as long as they’re out of the row it’s much easier to follow her lead than to set themselves against it, and you’ve simply been sacrificed to their laziness and selfishness.

One misstep in judgment (going to the apartment of her close male friend alone) begins the downward spiral of gossip and innuendo Lily never recovers from. And her pride makes it impossible for her to fight back.

Not only has the gossip killed any prospect for marriage, the question of how can Lily then support herself must be considered. In this class system, women like Lily are born to be dependent. There is never a question about working or learning a trade. Though she tries her hand at various occupations, Wharton writes a remarkable passage of truth that Lily is conscious of:

She had learned by experience that she had neither the aptitude nor the moral constancy to remake her life on new lines to become a worker among workers, and let the world of luxury and pleasure seep by her unregarded…Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the hummingbirds’ breast?

 Wharton’s Unsentimental Pen

I have railed against Wharton for writing such depressing novels as Ethan Frome  and Summer. It isn’t that I expect a fantasy of happy endings, but Ethan Frome, Charity Royall and Lily Bart cannot catch a break from the rigid social norms they struggle against.

However, about half way through The House of Mirth I had a stop-me-in-my-tracks moment: Wharton doesn’t write depressing novels, she just writes with an unsentimental pen. She chooses to write stories about people’s fate or more precisely that they can’t escape it once an action or word sets them on that trajectory; that social norms are so rigid and a person’s duty to their class is so morally strong there is no wiggle room for escape or independence from it. For whatever reason, Wharton writes about the injustices of a system that kills passion, desire and freedom.

And was this personal? I have read many times Ethan Frome is the most autobiographical novel she has ever written. So perhaps all this thwarted desire is her personal biographical commentary.

Women as Instigators

It is horribly sad that women in the novel are the instigators of the lies and stories that bring Lily down and that her own aunt with whom she is living believes the gossip about Lily accepting unwanted attention from married men. She not only believes it, but instead of asking Lily outright if what people are saying is true, she is incensed that Lily has allowed herself to be talked about in the first place,

It was horrible of a young girl to let herself be talked about; however unfounded the charges against her, she must be to blame for their having been made.

When your own family members turn against you, what recourse do you have? And when you know fighting back is useless, how do you cope?

Bullying in The House of Mirth

While The House of Mirth is rooted in its time period, something struck me as very contemporary. Lily’s death is suspicious in terms of it being an accident or self-inflicted. But the stage was set because of the devastating effects of the bullying and meanness she was subjected to. This is the same behavior and sometimes the result many teenagers of today are forced to endure.

Lily Bart shows us the tragic outcome when this behavior is allowed to grow and fester unchecked. I think this puts to rest those critics who wonder if  classic literature should still be taught in schools.

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My Edition:
Title: The House of Mirth
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Bantam Classic
Device: Mass market paperback
Year: 1905
Pages: 317
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club, Mount TBR