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The Fruit of the Tree

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(1907)




No critic has so far done justice to the variety and complexity of The Fruit of the Tree. There are three major themes in this novel: the problem of industrial reform; euthanasia and the moral problem it involves; women’s role in American society, but they melt in the last analysis into one major theme: the question of the moral responsibilities people have, of their obligations towards those immediately related to them and towards society as a whole, and of the extent to which these obligations are compatible with self-fulfilment. For Wharton no man is an island, nobody has the right to live only for themselves. Each life is inextricably linked to others, each individual act has social consequences and each choice we consider personal has consequences for other people too.

This belief is expressed through the “Westmore theme”, which focuses on the responsibilities of employers towards employees, through the theme of euthanasia, which centres on the dialectic relationship that must exist between individual conscience and social morality, and through the theme of the “custom of the country”, a criticism of a particular concept of women which makes them incomplete human beings, confined within the narrow circle of their selfishness, unaware or careless of human ties and social obligations. Each theme is explored through the medium of one of the three central characters: Bessy Westmore, Justine Brent and John Amherst. Through Bessy, Wharton makes once again her criticism of the “custom of the country”, of the way American women belonging to the upper middle class were brought up to be ornamental objects, luxuries, costly goods that, the more expensive and superfluous they were, the better they could witness their husbands’ wealth and success. No sense of individual or social responsibility was fostered in them. They were allowed to grow up lazy and ignorant and were trained to believe that their only goal was to get as rich a husband as possible, that they had no duties and that it was the privilege of their sex to be irrational and utterly unable to solve practical problems or to deal with money matters, which were a male prerogative. Although not evil, and capable of genuine feelings, Bessy is childish, superficial, selfish, constantly in need of other people’s attention, affection and approval, incapable of catering for other people’s material or spiritual needs, and, therefore, incapable of being a reliable, responsible and useful member of society.

Justine Brent has all the qualities Bessy lacks: these two female characters are each other’s foil. Justine is one of the most charming of Wharton’s female characters. She is endowed with a boundless capacity for spiritual self-regeneration and with an enormous vitality, and yearns for a life fulfilling for the mind as well as for the body. She has a strong personality and a free spirit, and is proud of the financial independence she has achieved through her work as a trained professional nurse. She is generous and unselfish, has a great capacity for putting herself in other people’s emotional or existential situations and is eager and able to alleviate other people’s sufferings, be they of the mind or of the body. She can’t conceive of her life as of something unrelated to other people’s existence. It is because Justine is so unprofessionally sensitive to suffering, so generous and so spiritually independent that she commits the mercy killing. With such qualities, Justine seems born to be the ideal partner of John Amherst, who like her cannot conceive of his Ego as of something separated from the rest of mankind. Amherst is an unmatchable male character in Wharton’s corpus: he is a strong-willed man, an idealist who can nevertheless set concrete targets for himself and is determined to attain them. Like other Wharton heroes, he is a learned man, who reads and thinks and feels a great deal; unlike them, he acts and achieves. His very hesitations and changes of feeling make him more credible as a character, because human personality itself is not a simple, well defined and immutable entity, which can be explained merely in terms of immediate causes and effects.

The interlocking of characters, plot and moral theme make of this novel, in the last analysis, a coherent whole, a structure which is a coherent expression of all its parts. The personality of the characters is revealed both through their actions and through specific analysis of their state of mind. The narrative structure is designed to embody the development of the characters, and to present them with crucial moral choices which bring their whole personality into play. Although The Fruit of the Tree is intrinsically appealing for its thematic richness and masterly characterization, scholars and readers familiar with the Wharton corpus may find this novel interesting also because it is a trait d’union with the rest of Wharton’s fiction. It is certainly one of Wharton’s novels of manners, because of the great importance that the question of women’s role in American society has in this novel. But in it Wharton’s realism finds a further outlet: like in Bunner Sisters, Ethan Frome, Summer and many short-stories, Wharton expresses her genuine interest for the living conditions of the less wealthy and the poor. Much of the story is set in Hanaford, Massachusetts, but, unlike Ethan Frome and Summer, this novel describes an industrial town, and here the poor are not petit bourgeois or peasants, prematurely aged and saddened by hard life, but the operatives of a textile factory, made obtuse and passive by the dullness of their existence. This is the only work in which Wharton manifests an interest in the working class and its problems, and her treatment of the ‘Westmore theme’ is her most explicit condemnation of the money values of post- Civil War America. The Fruit of the Tree therefore represents an aspect of Wharton’s work which is often undervalued: besides being social historian of Old New York, she is also the writer that opened the way to works like Babbitt, The Great Gatsby and Manhattan Transfer. As such, this early work contributes to the overall understanding of the fiction of an important American writer. --Submitted by Maria Novella Mercuri

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