Love's Labor's Regained: The Making of Companionate Marriages in Frank Norris's the Pit

By Piep, Karsten H. | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Love's Labor's Regained: The Making of Companionate Marriages in Frank Norris's the Pit


Piep, Karsten H., Papers on Language & Literature


   Our marriages are only saved from disaster--when they are saved at
   all--by a readjustment from the fictive romantic basis on to
   something more stable, but change is usually painful, troublesome,
   and imperfect, generally leaving the feeling on both sides of
   disillusionment.
   --Havelock Ellis, "The Future of Marriage"

   But I believe in companionship, I believe that between
   man and woman that is the great thing--companionship.
   --Page to Landry in The Pit

Published posthumously in January of 1903, Frank Norris's last novel became an instant success. During the first year alone, The Pit went through five editions, selling a total of 95,914 copies. The book's critical reception was equally enthusiastic. Reviewed in all major newspapers and every important literary magazine, The Pit was not merely compared to the best of Emile Zola's works but hailed as "the real American Novel" (McElrath and Knight 181). If The Octopus had established Norris as "the American Zola," a reviewer for the New York Herald mused, "in The Pit [sic] he is more the prophet of a new dispensation" and "becomes distinctly the founder of a new school, which may preclude a French Norris" (192). Though primarily praised for the "strong lights" The Pit "throws" on the workings of the Chicago Board of Trade, critics also noted that "the love story is a vital and engrossing part of the book" and commended "the skill with which these themes are developed and brought to a smashing climax" (189, 191). In Norris's The Pit, another reviewer wrote, "[h]eart interest combines as logically and inevitably with business as with the other occupations" (188).

Since the late 1940s, however, the critical contention that The Pit "is more convincing than the Octopus, more pleasing than McTeague, more dramatic than any of Mr. Norris's other works" has undergone a sharp reversal (189). Unlike most earlier readers, who had seen Jadwin and Laura Curtis's marital struggles as an important aspect of Norris's "philosophical study of certain phases in American life," formalist New Critics have argued almost unanimously that the marriage plot "seems unrelated to the novel's epic theme of nature's power and benevolence" (McElrath and Knight 197, Pizer 175). (1) For Charles Walcutt, the major ".aw" of The Pit lies in Laura's disturbing presence, which somehow upsets the novel's structural and thematic unity. "Obviously," Walcutt states,

she is there merely as a foil to set off the great struggle in the Pit to show the other side of Jadwin's public failure. Thus the story breaks completely in two when Norris devotes considerable time to her connection with Sheldon Corthell, the understanding artist to whom she goes for comfort when Jadwin is deserting her more and more for the Pit. (153-54)

And not only does Norris attempt to unite the disparate themes of love and business, Ernest Marchand complains, but he actually "allow[s] the love story to gain the upper hand" (120). What ultimately accounts for "the failure of The Pit," Donald Pizer concludes in The Novels of Frank Norris, "is not a crudely attached 'happy ending'" but the novel's inability "to rise above the Laura-Jadwin relationship" (177). Further, "concurring with most critics of Frank Norris's last work" that "the plots of marriage and speculation should be incompatible," Howard Horowitz maintains that "the novel's true failing" is marked by its "search for harmony" (215-16).

Though many critics still seem to agree "that the imaginative vitality of The Pit cannot compare with that of either McTeague or The Octopus," several more recent studies, influenced by feminist scholarship, have begun to emphasize the novel's domestic plot (Hochman 99). Rather than reading The Pit as a failed attempt to reveal "the inherent dynamics of a capitalist economy"(Mitchell 539), Barbara Hochman discerns beneath Jadwin's and Laura's marital troubles an anxious search for stable identities. …

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