Friday, January 20, 2023

Bread by Charles Norris

Mixed messages for working women
Charles Gilman Norris was a well-respected literary figure in his day, but nowadays he is probably best known for being the little brother of Frank Norris, whose novels (McTeague, The Octopus, The Pit) hold an esteemed place in American literature while Charles’s books have mostly faded into obscurity. In addition, Charles was the husband of Kathleen Norris, also a successful novelist. Like Frank, Charles was a realist and a bit of a muckraker who often wrote fiction exploring social issues. His novel Bread was published in 1923. (Charles had a penchant for one-word titles.)

The meaning behind the title does not remain a mystery for long. In the opening scene, Mrs. Sturgis, a widow and piano teacher living in a New York City apartment with her two daughters, has to borrow a dime from one of her students in order to buy a loaf of bread. Though a middle-class family, the Sturgis women often have trouble making ends meet. Jeannette, the elder daughter, decides she’s had enough of scraping by and decides to go to work. She undergoes training as a stenographer and takes a position with the Corey Publishing Company. Beyond the mere pleasure of a paycheck, Jeannette actually enjoys working. She proves herself a model employee, and her diligent work ethic soon makes her indispensable to the company. When she falls in love with one of her coworkers, however, Jeannette is faced with the dilemma of whether to give up her career to become a wife and homemaker (a foregone conclusion in those days) or to stick with her exciting, independent life as a businesswoman.

That brief plot sketch may sound like the premise for many a formulaic Victorian romance novel, but Bread is a more sophisticated examination of working women’s woes than the typical spunky working-girl tale. Norris delivers a realistic portrait of a working woman’s life in 1920s America, both in and out of the office. Jeannette has to deal with male colleagues who don’t take her seriously, female coworkers who resent her ability, occasional unwanted advances from clients, and the unfair reality of lower pay for women. She also struggles to balance her work and home life while her mother, sister, and boyfriends all continually encourage her to get married, quit her job, and start making babies.

Ultimately, Norris sets up a dichotomy between the lives of a married woman and a working woman, weighing the pros and cons of both, so as to ascertain which is the life better lived. Maybe that argument might be handled better by somebody other than a dude, but this was 1923, long before the term “mansplaining” was coined. To his credit, Norris has written probably the most dignified and authentic look at a working woman that I can recall from the first few decades of the twentieth century. Jeannette is not a cookie cutter heroine—at times she’s not even a sympathetic character—and the book is mostly free of clichés. When push comes to shove, however, Norris reaches pretty much the same conclusions about the role and needs of women as those romance novelists of the Victorian era. He just presents those conclusions in a more realistic and depressing way. Bread is a fine peace of writing, and admirably feminist for its time, but this was a century ago, and feminism still had a long ways to go, at least in the eyes of male writers.
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