Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1988
First published: 1924
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Social chronicle
Time of work: Early twentieth century
Locale: Middle West
Julia Shane, a wealthy widow
Irene Shane, her daughters
The Governor, the father of Lily's child
Hattie Tolliver, Julia Shane's niece
Ellen Tolliver, Hattie's daughter
Monsieur Cyon, Lily's husband
Julia Shane was a wealthy old woman, living with her two daughters in a mansion which had decayed greatly since the mills of the town had encroached upon her grounds. Although the house was now surrounded on three sides by railroad yards and steel mills, Julia Shane refused to move away. Mrs. Shane was worried about her girls. Irene, the younger, was, in her mother's opinion, too pious to live. Lily, who was twenty-four years old, had been in love with the governor, a man twenty years older than she. The real complication was that Lily was going to have a baby and refused to marry the governor despite the urgings of both the man and her mother.
The Shanes were wealthy; it was easy for Lily to leave the town for a trip abroad. Her departure caused no talk or scandal, although Mrs. Harrison, whose son Lily had also refused, was suspicious.
During the four years Lily was in Europe, life was dull in the gloomy old mansion. Irene taught English to the workers in the mills and tried to convince her mother that she wanted to become a nun. Old Julia Shane, the last of a long line of Scottish Presbyterians, would hear none of such nonsense.
Then, unexpectedly, Lily came home. Once again, there were parties and dances in the old house. Lily was much impressed by her cousin, Ellen Tolliver, a talented pianist, and offered to help the girl if she would go to Paris. The day after Christmas, Irene and Lily were taken on a tour of the steel mills by Willie Harrison, the mill owner, who once again asked Lily to marry him. She refused, disgusted with the spineless businessman who was ruled by his mother. When news came from Paris that her small son had the measles, Lily was glad to leave the town again. Shortly afterward, Ellen Tolliver also escaped from the town by marrying a salesman from New York.
Several years later, there was a strike in the steel mills. Only Hattie Tolliver, Julia Shane's niece and Ellen's mother, braved the pickets to enter the mansion. Without her help, life at the house would have been extremely difficult. Although Julia Shane was dying and confined to her bed, the merchants of the town refused to risk deliveries to a house so near to the mills where shots were occasionally fired and where mobs of hungry strikers loitered. On one of her errands of mercy, Hattie Tolliver learned that her daughter, now a widow, was in Paris studying music.
When she heard that her mother was dying, Lily returned from Europe. She and Hattie Tolliver stayed with Julia Shane until she died a few weeks later. Irene was no help. Hattie Tolliver shrewdly summed up Irene for Lily by noting that the younger girl was selfish in her unselfishness to the poor workers and filled with pride in her lack of ordinary worldly pride.
After her death, Julia Shane's daughters remained in the mansion until the estate was settled. Lily was bored, but excitement came to her through the strikers. Her sister had given them permission to hold meetings in the large park surrounding the house. Lily watched the meetings from a darkened window. She recognized Krylenko, a huge Russian who had been Irene's pupil and who was now a close friend. While Krylenko was speaking, he was shot by a gun fired from one of the mill sheds. Krylenko entered the mansion with a key Irene had given him. Lily bound up his wound. When she almost fainted, Krylenko placed her on the sofa. As he did so, Irene entered and saw them. She berated them both with all the suspicions that her sterile mind evoked. Both she and Lily refused to speak the next day. Lily returned to Paris.
In Paris, Lily confined herself to the friends of her chaperon, Mme Gigon. It was a quiet life, but Lily was happy with her house, her growing son, and her lover, the officer son of an old aristocratic family. Ellen Tolliver, who had taken the professional name of Lily Barr, was now a famous concert pianist on the continent and in England, and lived part of the time with Lily.
In 1913, Lily's lover told her that the war with Germany was inevitable. The news increased Lily's moods of depression which had begun to come upon her as she approached middle age. The news that the town wished to buy the old Shane mansion and use the grounds for a railroad station further aroused her antagonism. She did not need the money and also felt that the attempt to buy the place was an intrusion into her private life. Later, Lily's lawyer wrote that the Shane mansion had burned down.
One day, Lily unexpectedly met Willie Harrison in Paris. He had left the mills and sold most of his holdings. He brought word that Irene had become a Carmelite nun and was in France in a convent at Lisieux.
When France entered World War I, Lily's lover and her son were sent to the front. Only the son was to return, and he was to come back a cripple. When the Germans invaded France, Lily was at her country house with Mme Gigon, who was dying. During the night the soldiers were there, Lily discovered that they were going to blow up the bridge in the vicinity. Armed with a pistol she had stolen from a German officer, she killed several men and an officer and saved the bridge, not for France particularly, but with the hope that it might be of some help to her lover and her son, for she knew that their regiment was in the area.
During the years of the war, she became closely acquainted with M. Cyon, a French diplomat whom she married shortly after the Armistice. During the peace meetings at Versailles, she saw the governor whom she had refused to marry years before. She was glad she had not married him, for he had become a florid, portly, vulgar politician. She preferred her dignified French diplomat for a husband, despite his white hair and greater number of years.
Shortly after her meeting with the governor, Lily received a letter from the Carmelites telling her that Sister Monica had died. For a few moments, Lily did not realize that the person of whom they had written was Irene. Lily had come to think of her sister as dead when she had entered the Church; it was a shock to receive word of a more recent death.
Lily's last link with America and the town was broken when she read in a Socialist newspaper that Krylenko, who had become an international labor leader, had died of typhus in Moscow. Now her family and old friends were all gone. Only Lily survived. It was with pleasure that she saw her white-haired husband enter the garden and walk toward her. There, at least, was peace and security, instead of a lonely old age in a drab Midwestern town.
Louis Bromfield's first novel, THE GREEN BAY TREE, along with POSSESSION (1925), which continues the subplot of Ellen Tolliver, established for the author a popular reputation while he was still in his twenties. Critics at the time compared the novel with Sherwood Anderson's WINESBURG, OHIO (1919) and Sinclair Lewis' MAIN STREET (1920) in its harsh treatment of small-town America. Yet the comparison is forced. Although Bromfield's Town—given no other name but certainly based upon the writer's hometown of Mansfield, Ohio—is described as vulgar, gossip-ridden, and provincial, it is treated, ambivalently, also as the heartland of people of strong, defiant character. Although Lily Shane is in "revolt" against the roots of her past, she occasionally returns from France to her home at Cypress Hill, always carrying with her the conviction that the rest of the world suffers from the same destructive forces that she has left behind in America. THE GREEN BAY TREE, then, is not wholly a satire upon the sterility of American culture; it reaches outward in an attempt to understand the malaise that thrust many nations into the barbarism of World War I. At the same time, the book is a psychological study concerning the disintegration of people of violent, fixed temperament: John Shane, his wife Julia, and above all his strong-willed daughters, Irene and Lily.
As a novel of psychological realism, indeed, THE GREEN BAY TREE resembles Arnold Bennett's THE OLD WIVES' TALE (1908). As in Bennett's novel, the main protagonists are two sisters, one conventional minded and the other adventurous, whose lives are detailed from youth to old age or beyond, to death. Lily Shane, like Sophia Baines in Bennett's novel, leaves her provincial hometown to live most of her life in France. Although both heroines become sophisticated—and in a worldly sense, successful—both are shaped more by the forces of their heredity and early environment than by their later experiences. The comparison, however, is not complete: the Baines sisters live in a time of relative tranquility; even the Franco-Prussian War scarcely touches Sophia, although she lives through the seige of Paris. Yet Lily and Irene live through times of violent social upheaval, as well as war. The Town, once the comfortable fiefdom of privileged older American stock—the wealthy established families like the Shanes, Harrisons, and Tollivers—is becoming a "melting pot" of many nations and races. The wretched mill workers of the flats struggle to unionize and overturn the power structure of capitalists and their political minions, like Judge Weissman. Men such as Stepan Krylenko represent the new breed of aggressive workers who will level the old aristocracy to their own vulgar but energetic commonality. The neurotic Irene devotes her resources to their struggle; and even the aristocratic Lily protects Krylenko from the police, thus betraying her social class. Although the Shane sisters at first seem strong enough to control their destinies, eventually social forces overtake them. Irene, dispirited, sexually repressed, dies in a convent; Lily learns not only to weep but also to submit to more powerful restraints.
Just as Bromfield's treatment of the Town is ambivalent, so is his concept of social change. On the one hand, he sympathizes with the factory workers (in one terrible scene, reminding the reader of Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE, 1906, an Italian immigrant falls into a vat of molten iron); on the other, he derides them, using the crude language of religious and national bigotry. Similarly, Bromfield is ambivalent in his treatment of the psychology of women. Without question, the female characters—the Shane women, Hattie and Ellen Tolliver, Madame Blaise and Madame Gigon—are more forceful than the men. The Governor, a willful but empty egoist, cannot win Lily's entire affection. Neither can her French lover Cesaire. In her old age, Lily chooses for a mate Rene de Cyon, a polite but surely anemic man, compared to her own wild father, the creator of Shane's Castle. So Lily's independence seems, in retrospect, to have been only moderately successful. Because Bromfield cannot resolve the contradictory elements in his novel, the conclusion of THE GREEN BAY TREE is especially disappointing. The author's real sympathy seems to lie with William Harrison rather than Lily. When Harrison decides to sell his stock in the mill and buy a farm, he achieves a measure of permanent independence. Previously, he had appeared to be weak-spirited compared to Lily, but now that he returns to the land he finds, as does Bromfield, the only refuge against the shattering forces of social revolution or psychological disintegration.