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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1401

First published: 1943

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: Twentieth century

Locale: The Middle West

Principal Characters:

Kate Fennigate, a managing woman

Aunt Daisy, her aunt

Mary, Aunt Daisy's daughter

Ames Lanning, Mary's husband

Celia, their daughter

Laila Capper, Kate's schoolmate

Tuke Speer, Ames's friend

Mr. Roe, the owner of Roe Metal Products

The Story

Kate Fennigate was a manager, even as a young child; she influenced her mother, her schoolmates, and, particularly, her father. Because of her good manners, however, Kate was never offensive in her desire to lead. Her father, who had showed great promise as a lawyer when he was young, had permitted both women and liquor to interfere with his career. Mrs. Fennigate had no great interest in life except eating, and Mr. Fennigate had no great interest in her. Kate grew into a pretty, quiet, well-mannered girl with a managing complex. Her only intimate was Laila Capper, a self-centered, unintelligent, but beautiful girl who attended Miss Carroll's day school with Kate. Kate found it flattering to help Laila with her homework and to get for her invitations to parties to which Laila would not otherwise have been invited.

At a school dance, just before she was graduated, Kate first became aware of her love for Ames Lanning, her cousin and Mary's husband. Not long after Kate's graduation, her mother died, and she and her father sold the house and went to Europe for two years. Her father, who had been ill even before they left America, died and was buried in Europe.

When Kate returned home, Aunt Daisy, the tyrant of her family, insisted that Kate stay with her. With the excuse of protecting Kate, she made a household drudge of her. Kate was nurse to Mary, Aunt Daisy's daughter, governess to Mary's child, Celia, and maid-of-all-work about the house. In return, she received only her room and board. Kate realized what Aunt Daisy was doing, but she preferred to stay on. She wanted to help Ames make something of his talents as a lawyer and to get him from under his mother-in-law's thumb.

Ames introduced Kate to Tuke Speer, his friend. Laila also took an interest in Tuke, who fell deeply in love with Kate's friend. Aunt Daisy taunted Kate for losing out to Laila, but since Aunt Daisy did not guess where Kate's true feelings lay, the girl did not mind.

When Mary, a semi-invalid for years, died, Aunt Daisy was inconsolable. Her whole life had been wrapped up in her child, her money, and her house. The first of her interests was gone. Kate convinced Ames that he could now take the position he wanted with Mr. Bortshleff, an established lawyer. The second blow fell on Aunt Daisy not long afterward, when the stock market crashed, and she lost everything. Her mind broken, she had a fall from the roof and lay an uncomprehending invalid for years afterward.

Kate obtained a position at Roe Metal Products. She and Ames shared the expenses of caring for Aunt Daisy and the house, which no one would buy. Tuke asked Kate to renew her friendship with Laila because Laila would need someone now that her family was moving out of town. Laila became a frequent visitor at the house and soon tried her wiles on Ames. When he asked Laila to marry him, she agreed, but later she changed her mind and eloped with Tuke Speer. Ames, hurt and disillusioned, asked Kate to marry him. She accepted.

Ten years later, their life together was running smoothly enough. Officially, Ames was Mr. Roe's chief adviser at the plant. War was threatening, and Roe Metal Products, which had been expanding all during the depression, would soon open its fifth plant. Mr. Roe thought highly of both Ames and Kate, and they planned a party to introduce his twin grandchildren, Marjie and Marvin, to society. Miley Stuart, a new young engineer at the plant, met Celia at the party, and the two became good friends. After the party, Ames informed Kate that he was tired of her efforts to manage his life. She then and there silently resolved to offer him no more suggestions.

Laila, who in the passing years had lost none of her beauty, had also lost none of her selfishness. She had hounded poor Tuke for more money and a better position, until the good-looking young redhead he had been was no longer visible in the gaunt, hollow-cheeked, graying man. Laila tormented Tuke by once again trying her charms on Ames. Having built up among their friends the idea that she was a martyr to Tuke's drunken moods, she nagged him into an insulting remark while they were calling on the Lannings. Laila turned to Ames for comfort. He took her into the library, where she threw herself, weeping, into his arms. Ames tried to console her and ended up by kissing her. Two interested observers of that scene were Tuke, who was looking in the window from outside, and Celia, who was passing the library door. Celia also saw Tuke's face while he watched Laila and Ames.

Celia, thoroughly frightened, asked Miley Stuart to keep an eye on Tuke for fear he would do something violent. Planning to divorce Tuke, Laila asked Ames to divorce Kate so that he would be free to marry her. When she revealed her intention to Ames in his office, he was aghast, for he regarded her only as a good friend who needed help. Laila was furious when he refused to do as she wished, and she threatened to ruin him with false gossip.

It was necessary for Kate to become a manager once more, to save Ames from disaster. She proposed to Ames and Mr. Roe that Tuke be offered the opportunity of managing the New York office for the firm. Tuke accepted the position, which provided enough money to allow Laila to live in the manner she desired. It also took her far away from Kate and Ames.

Critical Evaluation:

Booth Tarkington wrote like a gentle Balzac: in other words, like a writer totally aware of the venality and hypocrisy of the "human comedy," but somehow disinclined to form harshly realistic or cynical judgments. This may be simply another way of saying that he was a commercial novelist, a writer trained to provide the kind of fiction suitable for serialization in women's magazines; as a matter of fact, a portion of KATE FENNIGATE was printed in THE LADIES HOME JOURNAL under the title "The Hardest Wife to Be."

Nevertheless, Tarkington was more than merely a commercial hack. His fiction ranges from such a memorable children's book as PENROD to the Realism of the novel in question. He had the talent and intelligence to see American manners and the American mind very objectively (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS provided the basis for one of Orson Welles's greatest films), but he lacked the anger of a Sinclair Lewis or the tragic vision of a William Faulkner. He was, finally, an entertainer, and anyone reading his fiction seriously is always slightly amazed and disappointed by Tarkington's reluctance to deal with the social and philosophical problems which his Realism raises. For example, in KATE FENNIGATE the closing pages present Kate and Ames in a sobering moment of confrontation. They are about to express the "truth" concerning their feelings, to probe the actuality of their relationship. The scene has all the dramatic promise of an illuminating final confrontation in a novel by Henry James. Instead, it settles for a vague pathos. Yes, Kate will tolerate more truth, but later. Readers sense that Kate has been brought to the point where she must finally face the deep-seated psychological reasons for her managerial personality, but Tarkington only hints darkly at the consequences. He is content to draw the portrait of a good but manipulative woman, as if that paradox would serve.

Twenty years intervene between the publication of ALICE ADAMS and KATE FENNIGATE. By comparing the two, one observes the great improvement of the latter over the former. A single protagonist is offered to the reader in each novel; but the technique of KATE FENNIGATE is vastly superior to that of ALICE ADAMS. In KATE FENNIGATE, the chief characters have more of a third dimension; the background seems more realistic, and, as a whole, the novel is a more unified work.

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