Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 764
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.
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