The Pit: A Story of Chicago

by Frank Norris

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Barrington. “Second-class town” located in Worcester County in central Massachusetts that is the “native town” of Laura Dearborn, the novel’s principal female character. Laura’s upper-middle-class New England upbringing provides her with a background in literature and a reading knowledge of French, but because of the death of her father, the stilted social climate of the town, and the presence of an aunt living in Chicago, she eventually pulls up stakes and moves west.

*Grand Rapids

*Grand Rapids. Western Michigan town near which the novel’s principal male character, Curtis Jadwin, grew up on a farm. Curtis briefly attends high school there but quits to enter the livery stable business and later moves to Chicago. There, he attains great wealth through real estate speculation. Curtis and Laura bring together the economic and cultural strains found in Norris’s depiction of Chicago.


*Chicago. Great midwestern commercial center and hub of the nation’s commodities trading. The dual character of Chicago, as both a cultural and an economic center, is best seen through individual sites that figure into Norris’s novel. At the same time, the city as a whole is wonderfully described in the novel, and there are particularly fine, often poetical, descriptions of the city’s changing seasons.

*Chicago Auditorium

*Chicago Auditorium. Building in which the novel opens, during a grand opera performance. In addition to introducing the novel’s main characters, this scene offers a powerful symbolization of the dual character of the city. During the midst of the operatic performance, a background conversation about a big wheat deal is taking place.


*Pit. Huge downstairs room in Chicago’s Board of Trade Building in which commodities traders do all their bidding. It represents the focal point of the economic forces presented in the novel. It is here that the nation’s wheat is bought and sold on a world stage. It is also the site of Curtis Jadwin’s eventual financial downfall, as he attempts to “corner” the wheat market. Numerous descriptions of the enormous scale of the pit’s commodities trading appear throughout the novel.

After Curtis Jadwin is ruined in the commodities market, the novel ends with him and his wife leaving Chicago by train. Laura looks back reflectively as they pass the Board of Trade Building, which appears to her “a sombre mass . . . black, monolithic, crouching on its foundations like a monstrous sphinx with blind eyes, silent, grave . . . without sign of life. . . .”

North Avenue house

North Avenue house. Chicago house that Curtis buys and has remodeled after his marriage to Laura. It provides another powerful symbol of the novel’s central theme. The extravagance of the house—including its art gallery and built-in organ—is fully described. Juxtaposed to the house’s opulence is the fact that Curtis is largely oblivious to it, knowing little about the expensive works of art it contains. At one moment, he does not even know the number of rooms the house contains. As Curtis becomes more and more consumed with his wheat deal, the artistic dimension of his house offers a retreat for Laura and a place for her developing relationship with the artist Sheldon Corthell.

*American West

*American West. The decision of the Jadwins, at the end of the novel, to “start over again” in the West following Curtis’s financial ruin, draws heavily upon the traditional role of the West in American literature as a place of moral regeneration. The novel ends with the Jadwins leaving Chicago. Curtis “studying a railroad folder,” is thinking, one assumes, of the future.


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Graham, Don, comp. Critical Essays...

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on Frank Norris. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. Includes the anonymous contemporary review “The Pit: A Dispassionate Examination of Frank Norris’ Posthumous Novel,” Warren French’s “It’s When You Are Quiet That You Are at Your Best,” and Joseph Katz’s “Eroticism in The Pit.”

Graham, Don. The Fiction of Frank Norris: The Aesthetic Context. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978. The chapter on The Pit discusses differences between this novel and Norris’ other fiction. It is, for example, set in Chicago rather than California, it contains many musical and literary allusions, and, most significant, it reflects Norris’s preoccupation with drama. Like a drama, the novel has few main characters and is staged in confined settings. In addition, The Pit includes a professional opera, an amateur play, and other plays.

Hochman, Barbara. The Art of Frank Norris, Storyteller. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988. This study of recurrent motifs shows Norris as a more complex writer than do traditional assessments of his work. The chapter “Coming of Age in The Pit” uses the symbolic wheat pit to discuss the novel.

McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. Frank Norris Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. This critical biography offers a thorough discussion of The Pit, which McElrath calls “a novel of complications” because of its “sustained alternating portraits of [Laura and Jadwin’s] worsening psychological condition.”

Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Frank Norris. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966. Discusses Norris’ rationale and creation process in writing The Octopus and The Pit, as well as the influence of French naturalists Joseph LeConte and Émile Zola.


Critical Essays