Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 829
Powell aims to capture the mores of a particular time and place and poke gentle fun at them. Her particular concern is the way in which men and women perceive and treat one another, emphasizing the influences of physical appearances, social class, financial resources, and degrees of sophistication. Powell satirizes the materialism of men in the opening pages with Jay telling Lou that he has paid $4.50 for his socks, indicating that socks so expensive must be of the best quality and a symbol of his status in the business world. Throughout Angels on Toast, money and what it buys are of concrete importance to men but mainly an abstraction for women.
Money affects the physical appearances that mean so much to Jay and Lou. While extra weight is a sign of a woman’s decline, for Lou gaining ten pounds earns him additional authority. Lou exerts this authority with his quick thinking to save Jay from the embarrassment of being caught by his wife with his mistress, but most important is how his action lets him admire himself: “He felt a little fonder of Jay . . . for permitting him to give this faultless exhibition of sterling male friendship.”
Powell’s men seek instant gratification with little or no thought for the moral implications of their actions, whether regarding business or sex. Only her women are perceptive enough to see the phoniness inherent in such behavior, as with Ebie’s resentment of “[d]oing anything they pleased on the side but keeping up the great marriage front.” Even though she is the other woman, the hypocrisy of this double standard makes her uneasy and contributes to her questioning of the way in which she conducts her life.
Powell’s men constantly justify their behavior. A hotel manager named Pritchard tells Lou, “Nobody has their conscience around much away from home. It’s like a garage. It ought to be handy to your house.” Ebie is not the only one disturbed by such lack of responsibility. Miss Frye, Lou’s loyal secretary, reprimands him for his evasion of Francie: “You men. You want to step out of your past as if it was an old pair of pants.” Defending Mary’s taking up with the gigolo, Miss Frye tells her boss, “I don’t notice you men always picking your social equals for bed, either.” (Powell’s world is divided equally into women who can be honest with men and those who cannot.) A woman’s only recourse with such men is to keep them off balance, as Trina does with Lou: “She called up his house whenever she pleased, she wrote whatever she felt like, often quite naughty little notes, and when Lou tactfully tried to correct this sort of mischief, she shrugged.” Trina challenges Lou’s manhood: A real man would not be unsettled by such female independence.
Angels on Toast is full of examples of men who express indifferent or hostile attitudes toward women. When Jay asks if Lou has informed Mary that he is opening a New York office, he is told, “What would I be telling her for? I don’t go round looking for trouble.” While Lou admires his wife’s social status, he cannot truly admire her because he cannot talk business with her—though, assuming she could not understand, he has never tried. Trina is a more vibrant woman because she possesses both business acumen and sexual expertise, both considerably lacking in the wives. Lou and Jay actually spend more thought and energy on adultery than on business. Before getting involved with Trina, Lou does not even consider himself guilty of being unfaithful: “[S]ince he’d been married to Mary he kept out of trouble, still doing what he liked when he liked but in out-of-the-way sectors and on a strictly casual basis.”
While Powell satirizes such behavior, she does not condemn it. She is content to observe wryly social conditions that she seems to accept as normal. Throughout her New York novels, Powell aims almost as many barbs at women as at men:Honey was a virgin (at least you couldn’t prove she wasn’t), and was as proud as punch of it. You would have thought it was something that had been in the family for generations so that no matter what the circumstances she could never quite bring herself to hock it.
Powell admires women such as Ebie and Trina who can take care of themselves, and she feels considerable pity for the emotional battering experienced by their opposites, such as Mary. Lou’s wife consults a psychoanalyst to attempt to understand her husband, “but what good is reason when the heart is out of order? Just so many sheep to count till the brain got numb . . . and then the old heart could go ahead hurting, even exploding, for all the good reason could do.” The irrationality, pain, and frequent absurdity of male-female relations are Powell’s central subject.
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