Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1060
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 attuned to his, the work of improvement at Westmore has an abstract quality, uniting the two in the chill atmosphere of high principles.
Wharton uses the imagery of hands and machines to emphasize the dehumanizing atmosphere of the worlds of both the working and the leisure classes. The mill hands, such as Dillon’s arm, are merely objects caught up in the great machine of industrialization. Bessy’s world is equally mechanical and empty, despite its glittering sophistication and luxury. Amherst sees her world of ease as “mental and spiritual bondage,” fearing that it “might draw him back into its revolutions as he had once seen a careless factory hand seized and dragged into a flying belt.” Justine, too, recognizes the mechanical quality of Bessy’s household, getting “a queer awed feeling that, whatever happened, a machine so perfectly adjusted would work on inexorably,” despite Bessy’s crippling injury. Existence itself becomes “the machinery of life.”
Amherst is transformed from a truly revolutionary thinker viewed with suspicion by the upper class into a bland paternal figure who has settled “down into a kind of mechanical altruism” and who stands within the confines of the rich as he surveys the little kingdom that he has created. Early in the novel, Justine wonders about the “wings” that one sprouts “when one meets a pair of kindred shoulders,” and wonders how well Amherst’s are doing under the constrictive clothing of his new social position. By the end of the novel, Wharton reveals how much those wings have atrophied. When Amherst hears how Justine killed Bessy out of a sense of love and respect, a truly radical defiance of science and religion, he is horrified. His wings of mercy and radicalism have atrophied. He exacts a high price from Justine. His unspoken censure of Justine and his conveniently revisionist memory of a saintly Bessy are moral failings.
Despite the novel’s sometimes radical critique of the factory world as brutalizing and the leisure world as empty and dehumanizing, the social import of The Fruit of the Tree is ultimately conservative. The narrative operates with a dual movement: It recognizes class conflict, but at the same time it attempts to efface that conflict. Real, and largely irreconcilable, social conflict is hidden behind the trappings of a love story in the same way that the real conditions of labor at Westmore are finally hidden behind flower beds and fresh paint for the dingy houses that line the grim streets of the mill town. The final irony of the novel is that Amherst mistakenly believes that Bessy was planning to build a “pleasure-house” for the mill workers when what she really wanted was an extravagant gymnasium for herself.
In this novel, Wharton responds to social concern about industrialization in America by turning polemic into fiction and using it not only to reflect that concern but also to manipulate it. She takes on the important but potentially dangerous subject of factory reform and then successfully transforms that material into something that will please the greatest number of people—a romance and a success story. She rewards Amherst with the fulfillment of his dreams, and she gives material improvements to the factory workers in return for their patient silence. The upper class, too, is happy. Its members have new outlets for their self-important philanthropic endeavors. The brutal factory system described so graphically at the beginning of the novel becomes a kind of extended family at the end. The happy ending for the Westmore workers helps to assuage the anxieties of a public increasingly aware of horrible factory conditions. The problems inherent in the new wealth of industrialization thus become more acceptable in the glow of upper-class philanthropy, love, and duty.
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