EESE 4/2008


     "Both at odds with
     each other and at one":

     Business versus Art in
     Frank Norris's The Pit

     Katja Urbatsch (Gießen)



"Business has its adventures as well as its adventurers, nowadays, and the growing tendency of novelists to substitute the comedy and tragedy of business for those of war, hunting, and other antuquated forms of activity is proof of great wisdom." (The New York Times, Jan. 31, 1903) Business and art are the two worlds competing for domination in Frank Norris's novel The Pit: A Story of Chicago, published in 1903. The Chicago business offices compete with the opera for primary influence, the businessman Curtis Jadwin contests the artist Sheldon Corthell for Laura Dearborn, and Laura's two selves battle over which of the two worlds and which of the two men to follow. The Pit was published the year after Frank Norris's early death, and followed the novel The Octopus (1901) as the second part of his planned but unfinished trilogy The Epic of Wheat. Many critics have vainly scrutinzed for the relation between the business and the marriage plot in The Pit. Thus, they often consider the marriage plot unnecessary and responsible for the novel's flaws. Yet the term 'marriage plot' already elides the fact that business versus marriage is only a part of the novel's central and more complex conflict between business and art. Therefore, this article considers the business-art conflict as a key to the novel's design which empahsises the reading that Norris sets up the conflict of business and art in the novel to interrogate their binary opposition and to demand their reconciliation. In addition, this paper is to focus on Norris's call for art to function in The Pit as a means to critically analyze contemporary society and to raise society's awareness of the negative forces accompanying social progress. Since the conflict between business and art is closely related to the marriage plot in The Pit, moreover, the fundamental parallels between the novel's presentation of love/marriage and its presentation of business will be explored in order to demonstrate that according to Norris the fault-line in both avenues of life is selfishness.

The Dichotomy Between Business and Art

In the opera scene - the Italian Grand Opera Company giving one of their famous pieces - at the beginning of the novel, Norris already establishes and foreshadows The Pit's central conflict of business versus art in its various facets. Laura Dearborn wishes the opera house to be an exclusive space of art, protected from the outside world. Yet business talk or just capitalism and speculation causing famine and starvation enter the opera with the businessmen who attend it. The smooth procedure of Laura's first opera attendance is constantly disrupted by business talk or other references to the vagaries of the outside world. The function of these asides is to secure a continual awareness of reality; in other words, they prevent Laura and the readers from being completely absorbed by the opera, which would imply a total escape from reality:

But a discordant element developed. Close by—the lights were so low she could not tell where—a conversation, kept up in low whispers, began by degrees to intrude itself upon her attention. Try as she would, she could not shut it out, and now, as the music died away fainter and fainter, till voice and orchestra blended together in a single, barely audible murmur, vibrating with emotion, with romance, and with sentiment, she heard, in a hoarse, masculine whisper, the words: 'The shortage is a million bushels at the very lest. Two hundred carloads were to arrive from Milwaukee last night---' She made a little gesture of despair, turning her head for an instant, searching the gloom about her. But she could see no one not interested in the stage. Why could not men leave their business outside, why must the jar of commerce spoil all the harmony of this moment? (The Pit 23)

As Laura in her box is unable to determine the origin of the business talk, which she perceives as a gloomy reference to the outside world, it appears to be ubiquitous: not visible, yet still there. From the beginning of the first chapter, the novel's structure is based on a dichotomy on gender lines between business and art. In the opera chapter, the novelist makes it clear that where there is art, there is business, and that those who consider art to be isolated and independent from the business world seem to be deaf and blind to their surroundings. Otherwise they would recognize, for instance, the people standing in front of the opera house, "upon the opposite side of the street, peeping and peering from behind the broad shoulders of policemen – a crowd of miserables, shivering in rags and tattered comforters, who found, nevertheless, an unexplainable satisfaction in watching this prolonged defile of millionaires" (The Pit 10). Although Laura is ignorant of it, the prime value of the world of commerce is also valid in the world of art, since that is governed by money as well. The money earned by the businessmen pays for art in the form of opera boxes. In the world of commerce, Mr. Cressler earns the very money that buys his opera box, including Laura's seat. Yet as Clare V. Eby states, "Laura can't see the contradiction in her position; money is good insofar as it buys women opera seats, but traces of how men make money should be excluded from the cultural event" (153). Laura's perception of the opera piece and of art in general provides her with a dreamlike, romantic escape from the harsh "real" world awakening her repressed sexuality (Katz 56):

Ah, to love like that! To love and be loved. There was no such love as that to-day. She wished that she could loose her clasp upon the sordid, material modern life that, perforce, she must hold to, she knew not why, and drift, drift into the past, far away, through rose-coloured mists and diaphanous veils, or resign herself, reclining in a silver skiff drawn by swans, to the gentle current of some smooth-flowing river that ran on forever and forever. (The Pit 23)

Laura wishes to make the world of art—or at least what she considers it to be—replace her everyday material reality. However, she does not have any genuine contact with or understanding of the "material modern life," in other words the business world that the grain brokers like Cressler, Landry or Jadwin live in. Nevertheless, on her way home, Laura becomes conscious of the existence of this other, business world, which she does not know or understand. What Laura does perceive is the business world’s parallels to art, as well as the contrastingly serious consequences of business and real life that she does not have to deal or worry about:

Here it was, then, that other drama, that other tragedy, working on there furiously, fiercely through the night, while she and all those others had sat there in that atmosphere of flowers and perfume, listening to music. Suddenly it loomed portentous in the eye of her mind, terrible, tremendous. Ah, this drama of the "Provision Pits," where the rush of millions of bushels of grain, and the clatter of millions of dollars, and the tramping and the wild shouting of thousands of men filled all the air with the noise of the battle! Yes, there was drama in deadly earnest-drama and tragedy and death, and the jar of mortal fighting. And the echoes of it invaded the very sanctuary of art, and cut athwart the music of Italy and the cadence of polite conversation, and the shock of it endured when all the world should have slept, and galvanized into vivid life all these somber piles of office buildings. (The Pit 38)

Like the opera piece, business is a "drama" and a "tragedy". In that sense, the business "play" can be seen as a competitive show, but in contrast to the artistic show, it runs continuously. Also, business is not an artificial show, where desperation and killing is acted, but where it becomes cruel reality: While Laura characterizes the opera as a place of beauty, as the world of "flowers and perfume," she perceives business to be the world of "battle," of "death" and "mortal fighting," the world of brutality. Accordingly, death is only regarded as beautiful in art because it is unreal. Thus, as soon as reality invades art, the latter is threatened to get out of tune and to lose its beauty. From Laura's perception of art, one can conclude that both the lack of consequences and the missing link to reality constitute art’s beauty and value.

Norris's Art in Search of the Essential Value

However, Norris criticizes Laura's view of art as a detached and aloof sphere. This is suggested by the plot of the opera piece, which foreshadows Laura’s triangular relationship with Jadwin and Corthell. Quotations from the libretto refer both to Giulietta, e Romeo, "tragedia per musica" by G.M. Foppa and N.A. Zingarelle (1796) and to Gounod's Faustus (Mitchell 161). Consequently, the parallel between the content of the opera and Laura's life creates a link between art and reality, as art is based on the reality of human conflict. In Norris's sense, art should be a means to analyze, to understand and to change social reality. As Howard Horwitz argues, Norris agrees with Henry James's perception of art that

art must practice a 'sublime economy' of excavation. 'Life being all inclusion and confusion, and art being all discrimination and selection, the latter, in search of the hard latent value with which alone it is concerned, sniffs round the mass as instinctively and unerringly as a dog suspicious of some buried bone.' (Horwitz 150)

Horwitz continues: " Norris also views art as a quest for the value obscured in visible forms. The 'purpose' of the novel he writes [...] is 'to find the value of x'. This is the achievement of great writers [...] [who] found the value of x for the life and times in which they lived'" (150). Norris believes it impossible to find essential values within the space one examines, in other words, within reality or its description only. Instead Norris considers art to provide a space that affords a unique and truthful perspective on reality. In fact, Norris does not criticize Laura's love of romanticism as such, but only her escapist use of it. Contrastingly, as Joseph R. McElrath states, with his new naturalistic style Norris aimed at using romantic art to give a truthful depiction of contemporary American life and the human condition:

Naturalism as developed by [...] Norris was a synthesis: of Realism's loyalty to factual accuracy and fidelity to actual conditions in the modern world; and of Romanticism's devotion to truth, which sanctioned a writer's imaginative leaps beyond 'normal' experience in commonplace surroundings for the sake of sensationally revealing the essence of the human condition. It was a delicate balance between the rendering of quotidian fact and the imaginative disclosure of what lay beneath the surface of life. (xiii)

In the same way Norris combines Realism with Romanticism in the name of Naturalism, when he integrates business with art to discover the essential value of human existence.

Consequently, just as Norris does not condemn Romanticism as such, he also does not criticize Romantic literature in general or Laura's liking of it. The problem is that, with her conservative taste in literature, Laura prevents herself from entering into a debate about the contemporary state of American life: "The novelists of the day she ignored almost completely, and voluntarily" (The Pit 40). When she compares one of the classic books she likes with a contemporary one, she articulates her own purpose in reading: "You can say what you like, but it's a beautiful—a beautiful love story—and it does tell about noble, unselfish people. I suppose it has its faults, but it makes you feel better for reading it, and that's what all your Wreckers in the world would never do" (The Pit 52). Laura prefers to read books that confirm her dreamy art-world, a world that makes her happy due to its "noble, unselfish people." (The Pit XX) Yet in reality neither she nor the characters surrounding her are able to live in a morally perfect way. Laura chooses not to deal with what it takes to be morally perfect, and "[s]he did not concern herself about consequences" (The Pit 102). Thus, Laura creates her own romanticized world, which she keeps mixing up with reality. As a result, Laura expects her own love experience to be like those in the novels and dramas: "I thought when love came it was to be—oh, uplifting, something glorious like Juliet's love or Maguerite's. Something that would [...] shake me all to pieces. I thought that was the only kind of lover there was.'" (The Pit XX) Therefore, Mrs. Cressler has to correct Laura’s narrow-minded view: "'Oh, that's what you read about in trashy novels [...] or the kind you see at the matinees'" (The Pit 143).

The Value Grid of Business and Art

While at the very beginning of the novel the division between business and art appears to be rather abstract, it soon materializes itself in Laura's juxtaposition of the businessman Jadwin and the artist Corthell. When she meets Jadwin, she finally gets personally involved in the world of commerce and begins to compare business (Jadwin) versus art (Corthell). Laura observes Jadwin’s character traits and the ways in which he differs from Corthell, whom she already knows and who therefore serves as a measure. What Corthell and Jadwin have in common is their financial independence, such that they are not forced to participate in the struggle of existence. In this context the novel poses the question of how humans find purpose in life other than working for a living or improving one's living standard. Jadwin articulates this problem when he tries to justify his speculation:

What are we fellows, who have made our money, to do? I’ve got to be busy. I can’t sit down and twiddle my thumbs. And I don’t believe in lounging around clubs, or playing with race horses, or murdering game birds, or running some poor, helpless fox to death. Speculating seems to be about the only game, or the only business that’s left open to me—that appears to be legitimate. (The Pit 204-205)

What makes speculation "legitimate" for Jadwin is that it serves to earn money, which makes it a business. Yet in fact, he departs from this purpose and admits: "Oh, it's not for the money, [...] It's the fun of the thing; the excitement---" (The Pit 204).

To the sphere of business as giving sense to life, Norris counterpoises the field of art as an alternative. The artist Corthell, for instance, rejects speculation as a sense-giving activity when Jadwin summons him to: "'Oh, dear, no,' returned the artist. 'I should lose my senses if I won, and my money if I didn't'" (The Pit 225). Norris considers art—in its broad sense—to be a legitimate sense of life, as it can be used to make sense of the material world. Hence, Norris describes all characters by demonstrating their relationship to art. Don Graham has identified three possible ways in which the characters in The Pit can approach art:

  1. to approach it as a trivial, fashionable, genteel undertaking, harmless, but chic, a kind of philistine dilettantism;
  2. to reject it, as the New England cult of the unbeautiful does;
  3. to immerse oneself in it to the point of losing contact with other important human activities. None of these, it should be obvious, is adequate from Norris’s viewpoint. (145)

Norris seems to place The Pit's characters in a grid constructed with art as one axis and business as the other. The more understanding of art and business one gains, the more the characters approach Norris's ideal of a high-level balance between business and art. Even if none of the characters actually reaches Norris's ideal, he establishes with his grid a new system of values for his characters and readers in a world where speculation keeps destabilizing value. With the help of this value grid, readers are able to position each character on the scale and evaluate his or her sense of life.

The Businessman's Absorbing Chrematistics

Jadwin fits into Graham’s second category, as he does not have any positive relation to art. Jadwin's interest is limited to art as a status symbol, for instance, his art gallery, and literature in which he can identify with the protagonists due to the fact that they are businessmen of his type. Except for socializing, Jadwin has no interest in the opera. Laura recognizes this and imagines how Jadwin must feel in the opera: "And here he sat, this Jadwin, quiet, in evening dress, listening good-naturedly to this beautiful music, for which he did not care, to this rant and fustian, watching quietly all this posing and attitudinising. How small and petty it must all seem to him!" (33). Apart from his business activities, which in the course of the novel will narrow down to speculation only, Jadwin cannot find any excitement or purpose in life. In the novel, he serves as a model to demonstrate that speculation has dangerous consequences for society and the economy as well as for the individual. Therefore, the Jadwin type would be placed at the very bottom of Norris's value grid. Again, Norris does not criticize business in general, but precisely the departure from legitimate business to speculation, from the exchange of commodities to gambling. Instead of presenting his own view through a single character, Norris works it into the observations and insights of a few characters as well as into the overall synthesis of the novel. In his speech against speculation, Cressler represents Norris's critical view:

'They call it buying and selling [...] But it is simply betting. Betting on the conditions of the market weeks, even months, in advance. You bet wheat goes up. I bet it goes down. Those fellows in the Pit don’t own the wheat; never seen it. Wouldn’t know what to do with it if they had it. [...] If we send the price of wheat down so far, the farmer suffers, the fellow who raises it; if we send it up too far, the poor man in Europe suffers, the fellow who eats it. [...] The only way to do so that neither the American farmer nor the European peasant suffers, is to keep wheat at an average, legitimate value. The moment you inflate or depress that, somebody suffers right away. And that is just what these gamblers are doing all the time, booming it up or booming it down.' (The Pit 115-116)

This quote stresses Norris's sense of the importance of balance and a 'legitimate value.' He criticizes the detachment of the businessmen from the actual goods as well as their dealing, or more accurately, gambling inside an artificial system serving their self-interest. As Horwitz states,

[t]he distinction between property management and trading in differences derives from Aristotle's distinction between chrematistics (wealth-getting or usury), and economy, which in Greek means the management of the household. Aristotle's distinction hinges on one's responsibility to a physical object of value. Economy maintains its property; chrematistics is indifferent to it. (155)

Norris adapts Aristotle's division established in Politics I, 8-10, by considering "economy" as legitimate business and "chrematistics" as gambling. As long as Jadwin keeps to his real estate business, he keeps the connection to "physical objects of value," but as soon as he starts to speculate, he loses this connection and changes over to "chrematistics." In his book The Economy of Literature, Marc Shell writes that, according to Aristotle, "[t]he tyrant [...] is defined as a chrematistical profit-making ruler interested only in selfish ends" (91). In this sense, Jadwin turns into a tyrant when he becomes absorbed in speculation. Due to the fact that speculation takes place in an artificial space and has an artificial and never-ending purpose, Jadwin loses any sense of the nature of life and becomes insane. In Politics I.9 Aristotle also explains this relation:

'Wealth-getting (chrematistike) has no limit in respect of its end, and its end is riches and the acquisition of goods in the commercial sense. But the household branche (oikonomike) of wealth-getting has a limit, inasmuch as the acquisition of money [as opposed to goods] is not the function of household management.' Chrematistics, unlike economics, supports the unnatural illusion that 'wealth consists of a quantity of money' that can purchase and so seems to be homogeneous with anything in the market. (Shell 92)

As Jadwin's speculation has an indefinite aim, he loses any sense of value, he even loses sense of the value of his relationship to his wife Laura. Like having too much money, being obsessed with the urge to earn more and more money for no purpose takes away the limits and with it all the measures in which Jadwin could establish a system of value. Concerning Aristotle, Shell gives the legendary example of Midas, who thinks gold to be his only and absolutely satisfying desire. But when everything that Midas touches turns to gold, he realizes that he has attached an unnatural value to it and discovers gold’s destructive force. For Jadwin, speculation becomes his only desire. His actions not only lead to serious consequences for farmers and consumers, but also for himself as an individual, because Jadwin carries the self-interest inherent in his business into his private life. I agree with McEltrath’s argument that "[t]he Laura-Curtis relationship was for Norris the microcosmic embodiment of the macrocosmic malaise in the American economy," which is the fact that this economy is based on the "socially sanctioned disregard for the well-being of others" (McElrath xxv). Absorped in speculation, Jadwin neglects his wife Laura and is increasingly unaware of his surroundings. Several times the "monotone" (The Pit 248), "blinding" (The Pit 235), "deafening" (The Pit 235) and "stupefying" (The Pit 302) forces of speculation are mentioned, along with the observation that it causes the businessmen to lose their individualities. Even Jadwin vaguely realizes the absorbing effect of his business: "It takes it out of you [...] to make five hundred thousand in about ten hours" (The Pit 224). Thus, the character of business also takes any sense for art out of Jadwin. He only values art as a status symbol, as an investment and an occupation for his wife. Jadwin's insensibility to art is amply demonstrated, for instance, when he hires professionals to decorate his whole house, buys a self-playing attachment for the organ, or is completely bored during their vacation in Europe. Yet when Jadwin articulates his attitude towards art, it does not seem to be far removed from Laura's practice of art: "'I'm not long very many of art,' [...] 'But I believe that any art that don’t make the world better and happier is no art at all, and is only fit for the dump heap'" (The Pit 190).

As shown earlier, Laura also believes that art's function is to create a cheerful atmosphere. However, in contrast to Jadwin, she realizes that their house has become very impersonal and that themechanical organ is one of the many tasteless gadgets in the house that alienates its inhabitants from their environment. While Laura prefers a house that reflects the individuality of its inhabitants, Jadwin likes his house to represent the technological achievements of his time and his affluence. But even in her domestic sphere, Laura realizes the devaluating factor of great wealth and the practice of chrematistics. She begins to understand that money in abundance does not make her happy, when she wonders, "all this wealth, what does it amount to? [...] All this wealth [...] what does it matter; for what does it compensate?" (The Pit 259). In addition, Laura perceives that she is losing touch with her environment because, when she can buy everything she wants, "the little personal relation between her and her belongings vanished away" (The Pit 309). Not having a healthy relation with her environment causes Laura's identity crisis. She recognizes different selves when she spends time with Jadwin or Corthell, but additionally, during Jadwin's speculation, she starts to slip into theatrical gestures. Thus, Laura acts in an unconsciously artificial way in her attempt to compensate for the gap she perceives between herself and her environment. In his book Art & Money, Marc Shell states that many artists "see the essence of art in a lack of adequation between spiritual intellectus and material res" (131); Norris seems to support this view of art.

The Artist's Immersion

At first sight, readers might think that Corthell, as the artist in The Pit, embodies Norris's and the novel's ideal alternative to the businessman Jadwin. Yet a close reading makes it clear that Corthell rather fits into Graham's third category, because he cares almost exclusively for his art and thus loses contact with reality. Corthell's lack of understanding for the world of commerce shows on Laura's way home from the opera when her carriage is driving through the business district and she seeks an explanation for it: "Corthell could not explain" (The Pit 37). Nevertheless, I disagree with critics, such as Richard A. Davison, who argue that "Norris reveals in Corthell's [...] character a falseness that is reminiscent of the bohemian dilettantes" (Davison 79). Rather, I support Graham’s view that a certain "kind of insight on Corthell's part [...] adds to the complexity of his characterization and makes the description of him as merely a dilettante unsatisfactory" (143). In fact, Norris portrays Corthell as a rather ambiguous character. Corthell shows a lack of understanding of the business district, but he also calls attention to the senselessness of speculation: "I should lose my senses if I won, and my money if I didn't" (The Pit 225). Furthermore, he lectures Laura on the dangers of being too absorbed in any field, not only in business, and explains the philosophy of his ideal society:

"Oh, why limit one's absorption to business? [...] Is it right for one to be absorbed 'altogether' in anything - even in art, even in religion? [...] Isn’t that certain contribution,” he hazarded, “which we make to the general welfare, over and above our own individual work, isn’t that the essential? I suppose, of course, that we must hoe, each of us, his own little row, but it’s the stroke or two we give to our neighbour’s row—don’t you think?—that helps most to cultivate the field [...]. One must do one’s own hoeing first. That’s the foundation of things. A religion that would mean to be ‘altogether absorbed’ in my neighbour’s hoeing would be genuinely pernicious, surely. My row, meanwhile, would lie open to weeds [...]. A little good contributed by everybody to the race is of more, infinitely more, importance than a great deal of good contributed by one individual to another.” (The Pit 216-217)

This lecture and his subsequent interpretation of Laura's picture demonstrate Corthell's personal insight into real, modern life, yet he fails to actualize his philosophy in his aesthetic works. His stained glass works lack a link to the real world, other than only to hint that, depending on the "glasses" people look through, they see the world in different colors and from different angles. Norris not only criticizes Corthell's aesthetic aloofness but also his personal inability to follow his announced philosophy in his private life. Besides his financial wealth, Corthell also has self-interest in common with Laura and Jadwin. McElrath describes Corthell as a "third self-server" because he uses his sensibility and knowledge of art to seduce Laura: "despite all of his prattle about loving her; primary for Sheldon is his need to seduce her into an adulterous relationship, and her welfare is, at most, a secondary concern. As in the Wheat Pit, where no quarter is given, it is dog eat dog in the realm of personal relationships; self-gratification is all" (xxi). Thus, selfishness not only keeps Jadwin and Laura from finding an inner equilibrium, but also Corthell. Every time Laura rejects him, Corthell escapes to Europe in order to compensate for his loss. He flees from his problem and absorbs himself in his "artificial" realm of stained glass. When Corthell returns from Europe, he shows a certain conscience for his artificial European space, as he says: "But I began to long for a touch of our hard, harsh city again. Harshness has its place, I think, if it is only to cut one's teeth on" (The Pit 212). Still, Corthell's travels to Europe do prove his attempt to broaden his intellectual horizon, which Jadwin is not interested in at all. Moreover, in comparison to Laura, Corthell is much more sensible about art and hence exposes her middlebrow artistic dilettantism in her taste in music and paintings. This way the novel criticizes art's position as a field reserved as an occupation for women in their domestic space. Through Corthell, Norris claims that the skill to understand and practice art is intellectually very demanding. Interestingly, Jadwin is the one who criticizes women’s seclusion in the spheres of the domestic and art: "But I don't believe they were made—any more than Christ was—to cultivate—beyond a certain point—their own souls, and refine their own minds, and live in a sort of warmed-over, dilettante, stained-glass world of seclusion and exclusion" (The Pit 112). However, like Corthell, Jadwin fails to turn his philosophy of women into reality. Also, by mentioning the “stained-class world," Jadwin ridicules Corthell and artists in general as members of the feminine world and therefore lacking in 'manliness.' This not only demonstrates Jadwin's misperception of art, but also why Laura feels attracted to Corthell as being supposedly closer to her scope of life.

The Demand for the Integration of Business and Art

Given that Laura has a passion for art in common with Corthell, and no obvious common interests with Jadwin, like Mrs. Cressler, one might raise the question of why she decides in favor of Jadwin. The most obvious answer is that she cannot withstand his powerful persistence to marry her. But on a deeper level, Laura's common interest with Corthell makes him too familiar and thus unexciting. Since Laura loves to live in the world of beauty and romanticism, she prefers to marry the chevalier: "the fighter, unknown and unknowable to women as he was; hard rigorous, panoplied in the harness of the warrior" (The Pit 60). Jadwin beats Corthell because of his manliness, supported by the irrational, romantic, feminine desire for a heroic chevalier on a white horse. Moreover, Laura juxtaposes the different ways Jadwin and Corthell make her feel. Corthell unveils Laura's emotional and irrational self, he "stirred troublous, unknown deeps in her, certain undefined trends of recklessness" (The Pit 121) and makes her feel her sex continuously, which arouses slightly uncomfortable feelings in her. With Jadwin, in contrast, Laura's reason dominates, she feels "tranquilly self-possessed" and "serious" (The Pit 121). Also Laura describes the relationship with Jadwin as "more a give-and-take affair, more equality, more companionship. Corthell spoke only of her heart and to her heart. But Jadwin made her feel—or rather she made herself feel when he talked to her—that she had a head as well as a heart" (The Pit 34). Laura feels herself split into two different selves, a rational and an irrational one, and she also believes that she has to decide between the two. Thus, Laura chooses her rational self over her irrational one and opts for Jadwin. Yet the fact that Laura feels attracted to Corthell again, and that she slips into dramatic characters, demonstrates her indecision and ambivalence. This is especially true when she realizes that she used to be on a higher intellectual level before she married Jadwin. Therefore, in Norris’s view, Laura should not privilege one self over the other but integrate both; Laura should embrace both her irrational and her rational side, art as well as business.

Love and Companionship as Resolution

Although Laura and Jadwin do not achieve Norris's ideal attitude towards art and business, at least they approach an ideal new beginning at the end of The Pit. Yet throughout the novel, Page and Landry as a couple reach the highest position in Norris’s value grid and consequently serve as role models for Laura and Jadwin. Even though Norris paints Page and Landry as very naive characters, they get ahead of Laura and Jadwin through their unselfish behavior, their attentiveness and ability to change. Landry is also a businessman, and therefore in the spell of the pit, which makes him change his personality as soon as he enters it. But Landry becomes the only businessman in the novel who is capable of escaping the spell of speculation and finding a purpose in life apart from business. Unlike Jadwin, he likes contemporary literature and is willing to listen to Page's insights into its characters. Even if Landry and Page do not always agree, they practice a healthy communication that is missing in Jadwin and Laura's relationship: "They listened to one another's words with studious attention, answered with ever ready promptness, discussed, argued, agreed, and disagreed over and over again" (The Pit 192). At the beginning of the novel, when Corthell cannot answer Laura's question about the business district, Page can explain. She also knows the story of Helmick's speculation failure. While Landry can give Page a sense of the business world, she can give him a sense of the world of art. This interest in each other’s spheres and perspectives allows them to gain a higher balance of art and business than Jadwin and Laura. Thus, Landry and Page both recognize the dangerous consequences of being a businessman, as Page says about Landry: "He wants to be more than a mere money-getting machine, he says, and he wants to cultivate his mind and understand art and literature and that. And he wants me to help him, and I said I would" (The Pit 198). Eventually, at the end of the novel, Landry even stops speculating. They both believe in the power of love to bridge the gap between business and art, and this is what makes this couple superior to Jadwin and Laura. Page and Landry do not only share an interest in life as being art as well as business, but they also start on the common ground of love. Page says: "But I believe in companionship. I believe that between man and woman that is the great thing—companionship. Love" (The Pit 193). And Landry responds: "it might be so, but all depends upon the man and woman. Love [...] is the greatest power in the universe" (The Pit 193). This insight into the importance of love and its power does not dawn on Laura and Jadwin until the very end.

Thus, the novel identifies the gap between art and business to be a human disease that can only be cured by unselfish love. In line with Laura’s few, but insightful observations into the world of commerce, she gains a new understanding of 'real love': "Now it was irrevocable; she was her husband’s; she belonged to him indissolubly, forever and forever, and the surrender was a glory. Laura in that moment knew that love, the supreme triumph of a woman's life, was less a victory than a capitulation" (The Pit 181). In the conclusion of The Pit, Laura and Jadwin are heading towards this stage of real love:

She took his hand and laid it to her cheek. "By all the rules you ought to hate me," he began. "What have I done for you but hurt you and, at last, bring you to---" But she shut her gloved hand over his mouth. "Stop!" she cried. "Hush, dear. You have brought me the greatest happiness of my life." Then under her breath, her eyes wide and thoughtful, she murmured: "A capitulation and not a triumph, and I have won a victory by surrendering." (The Pit 363)

And a little later Jadwin confesses: "I have been to blame for everything. I told you once—long ago—that I understood. I understand now, old girl, understand as I never did before" (The Pit 366). The deep deficiency Norris exposes in American society is its being based on the dominance of self-interest. Selfishness causes Jadwin's failure in business and marriage, it causes Laura's crisis of identity, and it causes Corthell's failure to turn his philosophy of life into reality and into his aesthetic works. What Norris establishes in The Pit is a new grid of value apart from money as the common value. He finds love and art, love as a means to bridge the existing gap between business and art, and art as a means to overcome the rift between the material world and the intellect.


Finally, the question arises of what Norris's ultimate perspective is on the speculative market-capitalist-society his novel represents and whether he is, like many of his contemporaries, nostalgic for an earlier form of capitalism where actual commodities, as opposed to credit, were principle objects of exchange. As McElrath and Crisler state in their recent biography of Norris, "[h]e was as stumped as the majority of his contemporaries by the questions of how one might rein in or redirect in a comprehensively ameliorative way the forces at work in the modern socioeconomic order that he pictured" (12). Yet Norris considered evolution inevitable as well as necessary and saw his task in recording, but not solving the negative consequences accompanying it. When asked about his solutions, Norris "protested [...] one should turn to a political economist and not a literary man for a comprehensive proposal for a solution of the 'present discontents'" (McElrath/Crisler 12). Therefore, at the end of the novel, Jadwin in spite of his refinement has to flee from the pit and Chicago, and Landry also has to quit working there to end the spell. Consequently, the force of speculation and its dynamics appear to be beyond human control. Nevertheless, Norris drafts an abstract solution by calling for the integration of the separate spheres of art and business. In and with the novel, he ascribes to art the potential and function to truthfully describe contemporary American life. In addition, Norris advises the business world to use art as a corrective. Norris reveals the interdependency and necessity of both business and art. As Shell states, "In ways not generally understood, art and money are both at odds with each other and at one” (Art & Money 137). The art-business tension in Frank Norris’s novel The Pit is not so much his clear-cut vision but it emerges from the characters' own evolution in the context of suffocating capitalism and greed. Rather, Norris stages the conflict of the two allegedly separate spheres of business and art precisely in order to undermine it. It has been shown how integral this perspective is to the narrative from its beginning. Norris constantly makes a distinction between business and art, between Jadwin and Corthell, between the office buildings and the art buildings, in order to create an awareness of the paradox and to express society’s need for a harmonization of the two worlds.

Works Cited

  • Davison, Richard Allan. "A Reading of Frank Norris’s The Pit." The Stoic Strain in American Literature: Essays in Honour of Marston LaFrance. Ed. Duane J. MacMillan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979. 76-94.

  • Eby, Clare Virginia. "Domesticating Naturalism: The Example of The Pit." Studies in American Fiction 22.2 (1994): 149-68.

  • Graham, Don. The Fiction of Frank Norris - The Aesthetic Context. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978.

  • Hochman, Barbara. The Art of Frank Norris, Storyteller. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988.

  • Horwitz, Howard. By the Law of Nature: Form and Value in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. 146-67.

  • McElrath, Joseph R. Frank Norris Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992.

  • McElrath, Joseph R., and Jesse S. Crisler. Frank Norris: A Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

    Mitchell, Mark L., and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. "Frank Norris's The Pit: Musical Elements as Biographical Evidence." PLL 23.2 (1987): 161-74.

  • Norris, Frank. The Pit. New York: Penguin, 1994.

  • Shell, Marc. The Economy Of Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

  • ---. Art & Money. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.