The Pit: A Story of Chicago

by Frank Norris

Start Free Trial

Critical Evaluation

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1002

Scientific theories and economic realities have often influenced a writer’s assumptions and style. The biological and economic determinism popular in the late nineteenth century shaped the literary theory of naturalism that Émile Zola popularized in Europe. Stephen Crane, the first American proponent of this genre, introduced readers to the forms of naturalism during the early 1890’s and was soon followed by Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and others. Authors who drew on naturalism dealt with four implicitly antagonistic elements—frankness, objectivity, determinism, and fatalism. As with a scientific theory in the hands and heads of subjective human observers, naturalism often succumbed to a not-so-subtle moralism.

Norris, one of the most promising American followers of Zola, died young. His fame as a novelist had been secured by the publication of McTeague in 1899, and the brilliance of his career grew more intense with the appearance of The Octopus in 1901. The latter title was the first volume of Norris’s intended Epic of the Wheat trilogy. The Octopus deals with the production of wheat, while The Pit describes the marketing of the grain; the final, unwritten volume, “The Wolf,” was to have covered the consumption of wheat.

Like his mentor Zola, Norris depicts large, dramatic scenes, such as the vast expanses of the San Joaquin Valley in California or the tumult on the floor of the Chicago grain exchange. These vivid scenes testify to the nation’s fertile soil, a hard-working populace, the technological imagination of inventors, and the organizational flair of entrepreneurs. Considering the menacing determinism in the titles of Norris’s books, it becomes evident that the human and social potential of the growing nation is countered by the fatalism of the life-cycle analogy, and the realities of the victors-and-the-vanquished syndrome.

Henry James and William Dean Howells were abandoned; Norris and his colleagues became the literary spokespersons of the populists, and the vanguard of the muckrakers. Norris sensed the passing of the old America of warmth, community, and lasting personal relationships. He was eager to humanize the new emerging society that was altered by the impersonal forces of urbanization and controlled by unsavory business tactics. To others, the decline of the genteel tradition signaled the passing of the great race and the entrance of mass culture. To Norris, both the individual and the masses were at the mercy of society and its fixed patterns. Norris’s voice was the voice of a generation, like many before, bewildered and adrift. He opposed the basic premise of a society without a core, a society in which the acquisition of money had become a sanctified goal. The ideal of objectivity would have been difficult to achieve.

Zola bequeathed objectivity to naturalism, and Norris wrestled with its thin edge. The Pit, like its predecessor, The Octopus, is a propaganda novel but by no means a cheap diatribe. Norris, an ethical person, could not detach himself from the unethical values and practices of his society, but he could condemn them. He was candid in his descriptions of the undesirable changes that had taken place. A deterministic universe works out its inexorable process through the activities on the floor of the Chicago grain exchange. As if the occupants of that great building were a nationwide audience viewing a play in its bowels, the pit, the Jadwins of the world rise and fall, just as they had throughout recorded history. Norris’s characters are the microcosm of larger society.

Furthermore, there was some destruction of character in the principal personages of The Pit , but their demise represents something much larger than the individual. The acquisition of fortunes had...

(This entire section contains 1002 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

its shortcomings. The new leisure class, the Curtis and Laura Jadwins of America, often discovered too late that wealth did not always improve the quality of life.

Chicago had been an ideal location for the story. In Chicago, one could find almost everything that money could buy. The city had become the clearinghouse for western America, a mecca for would-be financiers, meat-packing tycoons, and grain gamblers. This was the raw yet dynamic city that would later inspire poet Carl Sandburg. At one time, Jadwin gives up his speculating, but his addiction is too strong; eventually it nearly kills him. Such is the charisma of the city, of its seemingly infinite potential for success. Many perished before Jadwin; tragedy is timeless and inevitable.

In the opening pages, the reader is presented with the inside story about the Pit. Anxiously waiting for the opening act of an opera, and the prestigious patrons, Laura hears of a man’s failure to dominate the corn market. Even before being introduced to Curtis Jadwin, Laura becomes acquainted with disaster and with the cruelties of the market. Yet she is drawn to the men who speculate. She admires their social position and envies their luxury-filled lives. Laura looks to the future as if nothing inopportune could possibly happen. She would not always face life with such naïveté.

When Jadwin’s friend, Cressler, is lured back into wheat speculation, he loses everything. Jadwin’s efforts to corner the market could have been successful, but fate steps in and, through nature, destroys his plans. He had tested luck once too often and overnight is ruined financially and broken in health and spirit. In nursing her husband back to health, Laura asserts her own strength and demonstrates her love for Curtis.

While the novel’s conclusion is to some extent tragic, it is not without an optimistic note. The Jadwins lose everything they think life has to offer, but they regain their future. They have each other’s love for the first time in years. In possession of one of life’s most simple sources of strength and happiness, marriage, Curtis and Laura leave Chicago and move to the West, probably to California. Norris himself lived in California, and there naturalism had most productively taken root. There, as he had proclaimed in The Octopus, the endless struggle of the individual against economic forces had been well under way.