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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Edith Wharton - Fruit of the Tree

I really do love Edith Wharton; I’ve read a lot of her fiction over the years, ever since I first fell in love with House of Mirth. Not everything is flawless, but she certainly comes close to perfection most of the time. Just got around to reading this lesser-known novel, published in 1907. For some reason it has been largely out of print for years. Not considered one of her best efforts, some people find it heavy-handed, a little preachy and melodramatic. I don’t care to quibble; in my opinion, a “lesser” Wharton fiction is still better than many contemporary works, even some that achieve best-seller status.

“Fruit of the Tree” has all of what many consider the hallmarks of her better known work. These are 1) detailed, biting depiction of American upper-class society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; 2) deep understanding and empathy for her characters as they struggle to reconcile individual happiness and well-being with the implacably cruel moral judgments and requirements of society; 3) examination of the insufficiencies of communication between people, of how difficult it is for two people to truly understand one another.

Wharton is great as usual in her skewering of the wealthier class--that privileged 1% who’ve always been with us, the ones whose luxuries and comfort are purchased at great cost to others. There are three main characters—Bessy Langhope, a pampered young widow who has inherited a bustling, profitable textile mill; John Amherst, who is himself a gentleman to the manor born, but has thrown aside convention and taken a job as an assistant manager in the mill; and Justine Brent, a sensitive and intelligent young nurse who befriends them both.  Bessy is a tender-hearted young woman who has always taken her wealth for granted. She’s given very little thought to the fact that her dresses and vacations would not be possible if not for the sweat and toil of the underfed and uneducated mill workers who must accept dangerous substandard working conditions if they want to feed their families.
Upon meeting Bessy for the first time, John sees an opening, a glimmer of hope, and he seizes his opportunity to awaken Bessy’s social conscience and possibly enlist her help in reforming the deplorable conditions at the mill. She in turn is equally drawn by his personal magnetism and his compassionate ideals. This quickly leads to their falling in love and marrying. While Bessy starts out enthusiastically supportive of John’s plans, she soon begins to feel unhappy and neglected. Their marriage starts to founder, and Justine steps in as go-between and peacemaker. It gets much more complicated than this, as the novel draws on other themes and subplots, including euthanasia, industrialization, worker’s rights, modern medicine, drug addiction, blackmail, capitalism run amok, conspicuous consumption, and income redistribution.  That’s a lot of meat to cram into one book, especially when the majority of the plot centers on a romantic love triangle.
I can see how Wharton could be accused of heavy-handedness in places. The millworkers come across as caricatures, like the twin waifs in Dickens’ “Christmas Carol”, intended to convey the abstract concepts of ignorance and want. They are unimportant except as they illustrate the larger problem of income inequality and social justice. Of course, this attitude exactly mirrors that of John Amherst, and constitutes his primary failing as a human being and a husband—he, too, is blinded by his zeal for the larger moral question, and doesn’t see how his behavior causes harm every bit as great as that which he’s trying to alleviate.

Every novel by Wharton focuses on the way people often suffer from the moral tangles they get themselves into, and the terrible choices they are forced to make.  Few authors have her ability to delve as deeply and to portray the human cost in such heartbreaking terms.

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