Friday, February 14, 2014

The Pit by Frank Norris

Can’t stop the wheat
The Pit is the final novel by Frank Norris, one of America’s most promising novelists of the early 20th century. It was published in 1903, shortly after his untimely death at the age of 32. The novel revolves around events at the Chicago Board of Trade, and the title refers to the area of the trading floor where wheat is bought and sold. The Pit is the second novel in a planned trilogy known as The Epic of the Wheat that was cut short by Norris’s demise. The first volume of that trilogy was his 1901 masterpiece The Octopus, but no knowledge of that prior book is required to understand or enjoy The Pit.

Following the death of her parents, Laura Dearborn moves from a conservative town in Massachusetts to live in Chicago with her sister and widowed aunt. Within a few months of her arrival, she has already attracted the attention of three suitors. Sheldon Corthell is an artist with the cultured tastes and refined manner of a smooth operator. Landry Court, a stockbroker’s clerk, harbors an intense, boyish infatuation with Laura and places her upon a proverbial pedestal. Curtis Jadwin, a real estate investor and self-made man of wealth, is a bit of a mystery man. While his maturity and self-reliance distinguishes him from the gushing Landry, he lacks the elegant social graces of Corthell. Despite all the attention from these three eligible bachelors, Laura asserts her independence and vows to fly solo. Regardless, the lives of all these characters are soon caught up either directly or indirectly in the financial machinations of wheat trading. As fortunes rise and fall, their lives are all irrevocably changed by the relentless maelstrom of wheat and money.

The more you know about stock trading, the more you will enjoy this book. Norris offers little assistance and simply expects his reader to know the ins and outs of bulls and bears, selling short, margin calls, and the like. Even readers who get lost in the financial details, however, can nonetheless enjoy the excitement with which Norris portrays the proceedings. In a manner highly evocative of Emile Zola—a writer he very much tried to emulate—Norris vividly emphasizes how the dealings on the floor of the Board of Trade reverberate throughout the world, effecting the lives and livelihoods of millions. The supply of and demand for wheat is a force of nature, a raging river of grain that sweeps up all who become involved with it. In keeping with Zola’s naturalistic style, the characters fates are largely determined by nature and nurture, but in Norris’s novel each is given the opportunity to wrestle their fate through the exercise of free will.

The Pit is one of Norris’s better books, though not quite as good as The Octopus or McTeague. Once the reader becomes aware of the big deal upon which the book centers, the arc of the plot becomes somewhat predictable, but Norris fleshes the story out with so many moving and memorable details that he has no problem sustaining the reader’s interest. At times he ventures a little into soap opera territory, particularly with the romantic elements. Laura is a beautiful and independent woman, yet self-absorbed and prone to high and mighty histrionics. At times the reader can’t decide whether to pity or despise her. Yet though she may be a drama queen, Norris does portray her as a realistic human being. As is typical of his mature naturalistic style, the world that Norris creates is unflinchingly true-to-life and an accurate reflection of the society of his time.

The Pit is now in the public domain, so you can download it for free from Amazon or Project Gutenberg. For those who prefer a paper edition, however, the Penguin Classics paperback has a very good introductory essay by Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. and extensive notes that helpfully illuminate many of the cultural references contained in the book.

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