Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Themes in the novel include illegitimacy, reputation, class, gender roles, marriage, poverty, and prostitution. Like his naturalist contemporaries Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser, Phillips questions whether individuals can control their lives or if fates are predetermined. Phillips suggests that while external factors do limit choices, individuals are ultimately responsible for what they make of their situations. Rather than bemoaning determinism, Phillips instead turns his pen toward exposing those factors that impede Susan’s progress. He enumerates low wages in her different occupations and exposes the vast economic gap between classes. In the box factory, Susan makes only three dollars per week, but wealthy men such as Brent spend thousands on new wardrobes. Rather than condemning prostitution as inherently evil, Phillips shows that poor women often have little choice if they want to eat and have a place to stay. In Cincinnati, when women from a wealthy neighborhood give charity to the poor, Phillips testifies that the money offered is really profit from the sweat of poor laborers. When Susan is arrested in New York, readers see that police often enable vice rather than prevent it. Things are not always what they seem, and a streetwalker might be a morally decent person.