Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Perilous (Social) Climb

If I could somehow reach into the fictional world of Alice Adams, I'd give her two things: a copy of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, and a copy of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, published in 1847. Also, I'd slap her mother.

If I could somehow go back in time, first I'd kill Hitler (because if you get a time machine, you kill Hitler, it's just what you do), and then I'd go give Booth Tarkington a copy of each of those books as well. Although, considering that they were both published long before Alice Adams, he really has no excuse for not being familiar with them already.

You see, Mr. Tarkington wrote this novel about a young lady who has designs on a better life. A social climber, if you will. Thackeray's Becky Sharp is perhaps the most cunning of all of literature's social climbers, even accounting for the more dismal eras of her life. And when it comes to the dos and don'ts of women bettering their lives through advantageous marriages, let's be serious, Jane Austen's pretty much got that whole situation on lock. The range of examples provided in the Bennet family alone is stunning, but across all of her novels? Fuhgedaboutit.

Tarkington's Alice is certainly no Becky Sharp, for she is not shrewd. In the school of manipulation she's only in kindergarten. When she is at her most deceitful, telling lie upon lie to a young suitor, fabricating details and seriously protesting WAY too much, she is also the least at ease with her own behavior. When she reflects on her actions immediately after these meetings with Mr. Russell, she despairs at having told such tall tales, wondering what compelled her, and who she is. It is clear that she does not know herself (despite a tremendous amount of time spent gazing dramatically into a three-leaved mirror), and she utterly lacks self-assurance. Which is precisely why she is no Elizabeth Bennet, who possesses an abundance of self-assurance. Because Alice lacks both confidence and cunning, she is not only destined to lose the grip on Mr. Russell's affections (which, when realized in the novel is both unsurprising and sad), but she is also destined to lose the interest of her readers.

I don't entirely blame Alice for her shortcomings, after all, she's only 22. Also, her mother is an asshole. Throughout the entire course of the novel Mrs. Adams complains and whines incessantly about what a jerk Alice's father is (he's not), and how he doesn't love them enough/at all (he does), and how Alice and her brother, Walter, 'ought' to have everything that all of their peers have (says WHO?), and that Mr. Adams is not a 'real man' because he stubbornly refuses to make more money in order to subsidize this extravagant lifestyle she believes they're all entitled to (what a bitch!). Her behavior is a direct cause of the very serious stress that culminates in not one, but two stroke-like episodes for Mr. Adams. This berating crescendos in the middle of the book, for your entertainment I give you a synopsis of Chapter 13, in which Alice's parents have an argument:

Mrs. Adams: You're a horrible husband and father because, in spite of having dedicated your entire life to the company you've always worked hard for, you could have very easily done this other, rather obscure, undefined thing* that would have certainly made us all bajillionaires!

Mr. Adams: Oh, my!

Mrs. Adams: Now Alice doesn't get invited to parties with the rich girls!

Mr. Adams: Oh, my!

Mrs. Adams: And she can't go on absurd spending sprees to keep herself in the best fashions like the rich girls!

Mr. Adams: Oh, my!

Mrs. Adams: And our house totally sucks, in spite of the fact that it keeps us warm and dry, because it's not like the houses that rich people have!

Mr. Adams: Oh, my!

Mrs. Adams: You don't love us because you don't make very much money!

Mr. Adams: Oh, MY!


I swear this chapter went on f o r e v e r like this. Oh, and the *rather obscure, undefined thing that Mrs. Adams wants her husband to do is basically to steal a potentially lucrative business secret from a loyal, kind employer and use it to go into business for himself, manufacturing glue. Predictably, things don't go so well for Mr. Adams and his glue works.

As I started the final chapter I was curious to see how Tarkington would wrap things up. His previous award-winner, The Magnificent Ambersons, disappointed me because the one character I most wanted to see taught a lesson got off the hook much too easily. Fortunately, by the end of her story Alice seems to have learned that the only thing she really 'ought' to have is an understanding of her real self, and an appreciation for her real life. When she finally settles down and accepts her reality, she is rewarded - literally - with some light at the end of the tunnel. Although the tunnel isn't really a tunnel; rather it's a staircase leading up to some classrooms where she will learn a skill that she can use to get a job, and step by step start improving her life all on her own.

Alice Adams is better than The Magnificent Ambersons, but so far The Age of Innocence is still my favorite of the first books. We will see how Willa Cather's One of Ours weathers the challenge!


Louise Treadwell said...

Alice most certainly has nothing on Elizabeth Bennett, but not many characters do. Alice also seems to have been raised by the most un-clever of all idiots so her grasp of logic is hardly a surprise. I still want to know in what fantasy land did her parents think they owned the glue idea??? I cringed through that entire part of the story. Had I been his boss, I would have handled it precisely the same way. Idiots.

Maria said...

Mr. Adams knew it was a totally shite thing to do, stealing that glue formula, which is why he resisted it for so long. As long as he could, really. It was always his absurd wife pushing and shaming him into it, and she finally got him a weak spot. All things considered, I think he held out as long as he could. I was happy to see that Mr. Lamb understood that, in spite of Mr. Adams' actions, he was still a good man who deserved to be treated kindly.