(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Pit was the second novel in Norris’s proposed trilogy called “The Epic of the Wheat.” In this “story of Chicago,” Norris moves from the production of wheat to its distribution on world markets, from the natural countryside of California to the artificial terrain of futures speculation. Continuing his portrayal of the effects of temptation and greed, Norris also depicts the decline evident in the space of only one generation—from the moral generation of elders who made their money through honest labor to their degenerate offspring who labor only after money and the power it bestows.

The Pit was Norris’s most successful novel in terms of sales and initial reception; this may have been aided in part by its publication so soon after his sudden death, but it was also a novel that spoke directly to the times. Every major American naturalist, from Stephen Crane to Jack London and from Rebecca Harding Davis to Edith Wharton, acknowledged through their fiction that speculation—gambling on the future—had become an ironic indicator not only of economic but also of social “progress” in the United States.

Norris’s plot of Curtis Jadwin’s fascinating and ruthless efforts to corner the Chicago wheat market was based on an actual event in 1897, when Joseph Leiter attempted such a feat. In fictionalizing the story, Norris reflected upon the cultural implications of such daring maneuvers. He was interested not only in the consequences of illegal market manipulations but also in the facets of human nature that would lead someone to commit such an act. In Curtis Jadwin, one discovers a man whose life is so financially secure (but without direction, without goals for achievement) that, for him, the adventure of such an endeavor becomes its greatest appeal. Norris had predicted in The Octopus that the wheat would always prevail as a natural force; in The Pit, he demonstrates that power against all calculations of human reason when an unexpected bumper crop thwarts Jadwin’s illegal designs.

Against this background, Norris also...

(The entire section is 861 words.)

The Pit: A Story of Chicago Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

From the first evening that Laura Dearborn meets Curtis Jadwin, she knows that she interests him. She attends the opera with her sister, Page, and her Aunt Wess as the guests of their longtime friends, the Cresslers. Jadwin also is a guest that evening, and the marked attention he pays her is so flattering to her that she listens only absently to avowals of love from her old and devoted suitor, Sheldon Corthell. Corthell is an artist. The life of the capitalist Jadwin who makes and breaks fortunes and human lives from the floor of the Board of Trade seems to Laura more romantic than painting.

The next day, Mrs. Cressler tells Laura part of Jadwin’s story. He had been born into a poor family and had worked to educate himself. When he gained possession of some land in Chicago in default of a loan, he sold it, bought more real estate, and by shrewd dealings eventually owned a portion of one of the wealthiest sections of real estate in Chicago. He also speculated in the wheat market, and he is now a familiar figure on the floor of the Board of Trade.

Stopping by the Board of Trade one morning in answer to the summons of Gretry, his broker, Jadwin pauses in the Pit—the huge room downstairs in which all the bidding takes place—to watch the frenzied excitement of bidders and sellers. Gretry has received information that in a few days the French government will introduce a bill placing heavy import duties on all foreign goods. When this news becomes more widely known, the price of wheat will drop considerably. Gretry urges Jadwin to sell his shares at once, and Jadwin agrees.

The deal is a tremendous success. Jadwin pockets a large profit. The Cresslers try to persuade Jadwin to stop his speculating. Mr. Cressler had almost ruined himself at one time through his gambling with wheat, and he fears that the same might eventually happen to his friend. Jadwin, however, is too much interested in Laura to pay attention to the warning or even to hear the words of his friends. One evening at the Cresslers, he asks Laura to marry him. Laura, in a capricious mood, says that, although she loves no one as yet, she might some day come to love him. She had given Sheldon Corthell the same encouragement. That night, ashamed of her coquetry, she writes to both men to tell them that she does not love either of them and that they must never speak of love to her again if they are to continue as friends. Corthell accepts her refusal and leaves for Europe. Jadwin calls on Laura while she is out and refuses to leave until he has spoken to her. He is eloquent in pleading his suit, and they are married in July.

The early years of their marriage are completely happy. Their home is a mansion, exquisitely furnished and with beautiful grounds. At first, Laura has a difficult time adjusting to her...

(The entire section is 1151 words.)