Although some critics regard The Way We Live Now as Anthony Trollope’s masterpiece, the novel was greeted with disappointment by its first readers. Trollope came to see it as an aberration, going too far in its satirical disgust with the corruption of upper-class British society. His earlier novels strive for a balance between belief in the virtuous stability of British institutions and the viability of the British class structure, and skepticism about their defects. In The Way We Live Now, moral concerns seem nearly to disappear from the lives of upper-class characters, who give themselves over to greed and ostentation.
A key figure in the novel is an outsider of murky origins and shady financial dealings, Augustus Melmotte, whose rapid rise in English society, even to the point of election to Parliament, is supported by members of the ruling class. Those who support him are aware that Melmotte is a fraud but are cynically eager to attach themselves to his power to make money. He represents “the way we live now.” The central figure for “the better way we lived in the past” is Roger Carbury, one of the model English gentlemen who appear in many of Trollope’s novels. Roger is an ideal. His modest country estate has been in his family for centuries. He lives within his income, without ostentation, as did his forefathers; he believes “a man’s standing in the world should not depend at all upon his wealth” (though it certainly is connected to inherited social standing—Trollope is no democrat). He is absolutely trustworthy, and he “would have felt himself disgraced to enter the house of such a one as Augustus Melmotte.”
The Way We Live Now presents Roger as an anachronism. His social standing in the general estimation—though not in his own—is eclipsed by that of more ambitious neighboring families such as the Longstaffes, who live beyond their means and are easy prey for Melmotte’s investment schemes. Roger is nearly alone in the world: He never marries, and his sisters...
(The entire section is 836 words.)