I know I don't do a very good job of living up to my ideals, but social justice is a subject dear to my heart. This shows in my reading, I imagine - I love books that struggle with what it means to be a just society, that highlight injustice, that try to show the road to justice - Upton Sinclair, Victor Hugo, Charlotte Gilman Perkins, Karl Marx, Anne Bronte : each of these writers stirs me first and foremost as visionaries trying to imagine a world that is more equitable and just. Even in my admittedly humble work (I fix computers, if you didn't know), the thing that get's me to the office every day is the idea that somehow, my little drop labors might free people from the constraints of ugliness and dehumanization that is sadly such a big part of a post-industrial world. I like to dream, and social justice is the grandest, most beautiful of dreams.
In Fruit of the Tree, with the quiet impartiality of Dame Justice herself, Wharton carefully deconstructs what this dream costs, in real, human sorrow. This is not a story of revolution, but it is akin to one, in that it tells the tale of what must be sacrificed at the altars of progress, and how unsure the outcomes of that sacrifice really are. This doesn't make the book reactionary - Wharton really seems to champion the causes that the characters sacrifice for. But it is brutally, calmly realistic. If you cannot understand how the wealthy class in turn of the century America (or any inequitable society) can have be so blind to the misery that they extracted their wealth from, read this book - it opened my eyes, and gave me a new compassion for those who have wealth, but have a conscience at the same time.
This is the story of two very idealized idealists: John Amherst and Justine Brent. Amherst is a socially-conscious engineer, working in the mills owned by the recently widowed Bessie Langhope. At the beginning an accident has befallen one of Amherst's workers, and he is being cared for by the intelligent, sympathetic young nurse, Justine Brent. The accident is due to the terrible conditions of the mill town, and when Bessie comes to visit the mills for the first time, Amherst sees the opportunity to try to change some of the inequities of the system. Beginning simply with the desire to open Bessie's eyes to the inequities, things progress quickly, and the two are married. The marriage is a difficult one, as Amherst comes to realize that he entered it in large part as a means to the end of improving the mills, and as Bessie ceases to be interested in his larger social questions. This leads to a painful series of events, and an ending that I won't ruin for you, even in a spoiler free section. But sufficeth to say, the book grapples with social justice, euthanasia, women's equality, the value of the individual, and the basic questions of what is and is not a moral act.
This was Wharton's third novel, and lacks some of the polish of, for instance, Age of Innocence (a difficult standard to judge against...). The dialogue feels wooden at times, the characters too consistent, if that makes sense (the idealists are ALWAYS idealists, for instance). But the strength of this novel is that each one of the characters has, by the end of the book, a real soul, full of blacks, greys and whites, and deserving of human respect and pity, even at their ugliest moments. You see how someone can take away the chance for basic schooling and medical care for a town full of people, because they want to build a private luxury gymnasium, without just being a soulless monster. You see how a devotion to seeing good done on a social scale, can make someone treat the people closest to them abominably. You see how good people turn wicked, how morally ambiguous people can strice for moments of heroism.
And in a sense, the absolutes of this book - the extreme idealists for instance - are part of the point. While the book is presented as a tragedy, in a sense, it presents an ideal scenario for social change - the perfect idealist, obtains the means to effect change, then gains total freedom to enact his plans, then gets all the help he could ask for, and even succeeds in his aims, making thousands of lives infinitely better. And in the process, still takes away the greatest possible happiness he himself, and those he loves best, could have ever enjoyed. It's a novel that shows that you cannot really change the world simply through self sacrifice - you inevitably, unavaoidably sacrifice the people you love as well, and for that reason idealism itself takes a special sort of callousness and cruelty - even if it is the road to the best of all possible worlds.
And, while Wharton is NOT perfect, the writing IS vintage Wharton - beautiful, overgrown, rich with a deep layering of gorgeous, fragrant language:
There [the marsh] lay in charmed solitude, shut in by a tawny growth of larch and swamp-maple, its edges burnt out to smouldering shades of russet, ember-red and ashen-grey, while the quaking centre still preserved a jewel-like green where hidden lanes of moisture wound between islets tufted with swamp-cranberry and with the charred browns of fern and wild rose and bay. Sodden earth adn decaying branches gave forth a sweet odour, as of the aromatic essence embalming a dead summer; and the air charged with this scent was so still that the snapping of witch-hazel pods, the drop of a nut, the leap of a startled fron, pricked the silence with separate points of sound.
And her careful observation of what it is to be human is laced throughout the entire book:
Bessy's mind was not made for introspection, and chance had burdened it with unintelligible problems. She felt herself the victim of circumstances to which her imagination attributed the deliberate malice that children ascribe to the furniture they run against in playing. This helped her to cultivate a sense of helpless injury and to disdain in advance the advice she was perpetually seeking.
Fruit of the Tree was out of print for 90 years after it was first published (there is now an off-brand press edition available through Amazon, I believe). Different places on line describe it as a soap opera, and invariably as one of Wharton's lesser works. But, for it's unique comination of an acute eye, a deep knowledge of the upper class, and an earnest desire to understand why the world has so much trouble changing, this book deserves a revival.
(Image from Stitch)