Set for the most part in the desolate plains and dusty small towns of eastern Nebraska, The Works of Love traces the history of a naive man and his difficulties in feeling at home with his fellow-man.
Orphaned at an early age, Will Brady has no option but to take the world as he finds it. His lack of culture and education indicate that he has no means of understanding the world. He has, however, no inclination to understand it. He gets to know his limitations and frustrations as an intermittent series of pangs occasioned by nocturnal glimpses of the lights on railroad semaphores and by a desire for female companionship. His formative experiences of life and love are obtained in his sojourn in Calloway, Nebraska, where he works at the Merchant’s Hotel and on his nights off visits Opal Mason, a lonesome whore.
As a result of one of these visits, Will’s life becomes more complicated. Feeling that he should be married and having Opal reject him, he finds himself associated with one of her young colleagues, Mickey Ahearne. Nothing comes immediately of this association. Mickey is pregnant and already engaged; the second time Will sees her, she is leaving town with her fiance. The complication arises when Will receives, by rail, a picnic basket containing an infant and a note saying, “My name is Willy Brady.” Yet, strange as this event is, neither Will nor anyone else in Calloway thinks very much about it.
This episode establishes the manner in which all further incidents in the novel are perceived by the characters. Will is impressed by the way T. P. Luckett, a frequent guest at the Merchant’s Hotel, extols the virtues of Nebraska as a land of opportunity. He also falls for Luckett’s groundless and inflated estimation of Will’s acumen. As a result, Will enters the egg business, supplying the products of his chicken farm to railroad companies. The business succeeds magnificently and without discernible effort. Not even a devastating outbreak of chicken disease seriously impedes its progress. Yet, despite its large profits, the only satisfaction it contains for Will is the release in him of a sympathetic, intuitive feeling for the shape, weight, and color of eggs.
Similarly, when the owner of the hotel dies, Will, without exactly knowing why, finds himself marrying the widow Ethel Bassett. The marriage is a disaster, socially and sexually, and ends with Ethel leaving him. This initiates Will into a hitherto unknown degree of loneliness. Yet this unfortunate turn of events does not stir Will to take decisive action. Rather, finding himself obliged to be in Omaha frequently on business, he drifts into a relationship with a cigar-counter clerk named Gertrude Long in a city hotel.
Thanks to his business success, Will is able to provide his new bride, Gertrude, with a lavish lifestyle. The culminating expression of his wealth is a mansion on the prairie. The house, however, is never properly habitable because of Will’s ignorance in such matters. Gertrude becomes an unhappy recluse in it, pining for the nickelodeons and busy streets of Omaha. Her longings are shared by Will, Jr., so that the domestic arrangement seems to consist of father and two children.
Eventually, Gertrude runs away. On her return, Will attempts to rehabilitate their relationship by means of a trip to California. In the course of the vacation, however, Will discovers that Gertrude is an alcoholic. The relationship ends, but Will is given help in enduring his loss by means of a quasi-religious experience. An anonymous, bearded old man tells him: “There’s no need for great lovers in heaven. Pity is the great lover, and the great lovers are all on earth.”
The novel’s concluding section seems to reveal the force of the old man’s statement. Here Will is shown living within the confines of his own pathos. By this time, he is in Chicago. He spends his days sampling...
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