Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806

When it was published, The Folks was hailed as, if not the great American novel, at least the best novel about the Midwest that had ever been written. Unlike contemporaries such as Sinclair Lewis, who in Main Street (1920) and later novels pictured midwestern small towns as stifling, their inhabitants as pretentious and hypocritical, Ruth Suckow produced a book that critics called truly realistic. Although to outsiders Belmond may seem serene and even dull, its people have their share of inner conflicts and of uncertainty about the future.

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In The Folks, the Ferguson home place represents the agrarian life and traditional values. At the beginning of the novel, Fred’s aging parents still live in the old family home, which is appropriately called the rock house. Just across the road is the new house, built by Fred’s sister and her husband, who works the farm. When they are young, all of Fred’s children like to go out to the home place. As adults, however, Margaret finds her place in the city and Dorothy finds her place in the suburbs. Even for Carl, living on the farm is never a real option. During his midlife crisis, Carl daydreams about becoming a farmer, but he lacks the will to make any drastic change in his life. Perhaps what Carl really wants is not a new vocation but a return to his youth.

By the time Bunny takes his new wife out to the home place, his grandparents are dead, the rock house is deserted, and the farm is being worked by renters. Bunny speaks about spending a summer in the rock house; however, Charlotte feels a revulsion toward any land that is privately owned. Her aim is to move to Russia and work in an agricultural commune.

In The Folks, Americans are shown to be losing a system of values, along with their ties to the land. Annie may be correct in blaming Fred’s frugality on his Scottish ancestry, but his sense of obligation to his church and to the less fortunate in his community reflects the ethical and religious standards of an earlier time, not of a particular national background. Fred always tries to do what is right, not what is convenient, but none of his children possesses the father’s sense of moral certainty. Dorothy drifts along with Jesse, and Bunny, troubled by social injustice, meanders toward Marxism. The rebellious Margaret easily discards her parents’ standards of sexual morality and embarks on her own pursuit of happiness. One might think that Carl, at least, is impelled by principle when he renews his commitment to Lillian. In fact, Carl is only too aware that his remaining with his wife is the result of his weakness rather than of any moral strength. Carl is not, like Fred, a man of conviction; he is simply a conformist, still trying to fit into the role of the good son that he assumed in childhood.

Despite Fred’s goodness, he is too much a man of his time to comprehend the frustrations of his own wife. Annie loves Fred and wants to be a good wife to him; however, society defines that role as one of total submission. It is not just that Fred buys the cars and decides when the house should be remodeled, or even that he assumes Annie will attend his church. Even her smallest decision is designed to avoid criticism from him or from his family. When she runs out of eggs and needs to do some baking, Annie cannot just get what she needs from the store, for her thrifty husband will want her to wait for the free eggs from the farm. Even her treasured time alone, after everyone finishes breakfast and leaves the house, is cut short because someone from Fred’s family might stop by, see that the dishes are not yet washed, and report Annie’s slothfulness to her husband.

Annie blames Fred and his obtuseness for her occasional unhappiness. Like most of the women of Belmond, Annie has no idea that society can be structured other than as a patriarchal system. Suckow sees change coming even in the area of gender roles; ever the realist, she does not see the new independence of women as an unmixed blessing. Thus Margaret, who scorns docile women such as her mother and her sister, in fact gives up her freedom, as well as her future, when she agrees to be the mistress of a married man. Ironically, the most independent woman in the novel, Charlotte, is also one of the most unpleasant.

At the end of The Folks, even Fred sees that his era is over and that his children will lead lives much different from his. With her characteristic honesty, Suckow stops there. The future, she implies, must speak for itself.

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