Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Death to Lady Bountiful: Women and Reform in Edith Wharton's "The Fruit of the Tree."(early 20th-Century novel)(Critical Essay)

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Death to Lady Bountiful: Women and Reform in Edith Wharton's "The Fruit of the Tree."(early 20th-Century novel)(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt

The consensus among several generations of critics is that Wharton's 1907 novel The Fruit of the Tree lacks a stable core of concerns. [1] "There was stuff here for a dozen novels," Millicent Bell concludes (253-54). Henry James's judgment was no less decisive for his characteristic indirection. After praising the novel to Wharton as a thing "of a great deal of (though not perhaps of a completely superior) art," he adds, "Where my qualifications would come in would be as to the terrible question of the composition & conduct of the thing" (Powers 78). He would later complain to Mary Cadwalader Jones of the novel's "strangely infirm composition and construction--as if she hadn't taken thought for that" (Powers 79, n3). [2] Frequently underlying criticism of its construction is the assumption that Wharton conceived of her novel in the muckraking tradition. Thus Elizabeth Ammons, who characterizes both The House of Mirth (1905) and The Fruit of the Tree (1907) as "economic novels," assigns them places alongside N orris's The Pit (1903), Glasgow's The Deliverance (1904), and Sinclair's The Jungle (1906). If we hold Wharton to these muckraking intentions, then the novel's cursory attention to the details of mill life and its focus instead on the private lives of the three principal characters are bound to disappoint.

But what if Wharton conceived of Fruit as belonging to an altogether different class of reform novels, as remarks by her contemporaries suggest? The Nation's reviewer apparently had little trouble recognizing in it "a familiar type of current American fiction: the industrial novel" ("Current Fiction" 352). This reviewer affords us a glimpse of this subgenre's essential features when he observes of Amherst and Bessy's engagement at the end of Book 1, "At this point the ordinary industrial novel might have been content to end, with a sound of wedding bells and popular plaudits" (353). These comments suggest that readers in the early 1900S would have had little difficulty in placing Wharton's novel not among journalistic exposes of industrial corruption but together with a class of reform novels that did not entirely eschew the romantic subplot.

Just such a tradition was the class of American women's fiction that etched with varying degrees of relief the grim realities of industrial life, but were primarily concerned with delineating women's roles in industrial reform. The most popular of these works would include Rebecca Harding Davis's Margret Howth (1862), Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Silent Partner (1871), Margaret Deland's The Wisdom of Fools (1897), and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's The Portion of Labor (1901). [3] I am less interested, however, in how situating Fruit in this tradition allows us to rethink the question of the novel's "strangely infirm composition" than in how it clarifies the feminist subtext of the novel. In recent years, historians have contributed to our understanding of late-nineteenth-century women's experience by drawing attention to the connection between two progressive-era developments: the conservative turn of female political culture and the "domestication" of politics, in terms historian Paula Baker has made familiar. While many early activists borrowed the language of natural rights to frame their arguments for equality, we find a new generation of clubwomen and suffragists appealing to the special and potentially superior contributions of womanliness to the public sphere (see Blair and Kraditor). In this, Baker demonstrates, "social feminists" had the force of progressive-era policy behind them; as the government took on work that had once fallen to women and the private domain, women assumed new roles on sanitation committees, in settlement houses, and other social services without apparently defying received notions of female identity. Thus Rheta Childe Dorr could reassure her readers in What Eight Million Women Want (1910) that "women's place is in the home. This is a platitude which no woman will ever dissent from," precisely because "home is not contained within the four walls of an individual home. …

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