It is clear from its opening scene that The Fruit of the Tree is about class conflict in the era of industrialization at the time around the beginning of the twentieth century. The novel opens with John Amherst, the idealistic assistant manager of the Westmore mills, standing over the hospital bedside of an injured worker. Amherst is determined to show the mills’ new owner, Bessy Westmore, that this latest accident is the result of the brutality inherent in a factory system fueled by a profit motive. He wants to “awaken” Bessy, a pampered, unthinking member of a leisure class that wants generous profits supplied as unobtrusively as possible. Edith Wharton brings together the two classes, embodied in Amherst and Bessy, in a struggle over the improvement of the lives of the mill workers.
In depicting this class struggle, Wharton also brings together two kinds of narrative: social realism and love. Bessy is first drawn into Amherst’s world. She comes to the ugly mill town; she tours the noisy, dirty mills; she weeps at the plight of the ill-treated, malnourished, and exhausted workers. Her sympathetic reactions, as well as her plans for a nursery and a night school, promise future reforms. The novel begins with Amherst guiding Bessy through rows of pounding machines, but it subtly turns its focus to the relationships between individual hearts and minds. Amherst is attracted to Bessy’s physical beauty and charm, which he interprets as outward signs of her moral and spiritual beauty. He marries her, but this action pulls him away from Westmore more than it connects Bessy to it. Amherst’s work at Westmore, although it is described as his life, takes place out of sight, away from and in conflict with his personal and domestic concerns at Lynbrook, Bessy’s home.
Amherst attempts to resist Bessy’s world of luxury, keeping himself aloof from her party guests and encouraging her to trim her expenses so that money can go into the mills. He views himself as caught between “sacrificing” the mills to his wife’s need for luxury and “sacrificing” his wife to the mills. When they are not in the forefront of the novel, the Westmore mills serve as the influential backdrop for the rest of the story. The novel evolves into a troubled mixture of love story and social realism. The mills and the mill workers become little more than abstractions, points of contention between husband and wife, the yardstick by which they measure their failing marriage. Even after Bessy’s death and Amherst’s marriage to Justine Brent, a nurse whose heart and mind are more...
(The entire section is 1060 words.)