Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Way We Live Now: Plowing and sowing

What follows are a few thoughts on Trollope’s world in The Way We Live Now…or at least through Chapter 24.

Trollope clearly takes aim at religion, but it is more how he does it as well as his issue (or target) that interested me. We are introduced to two men of the church in the Suffolk area: the Anglican Bishop of Elmham and the Roman Catholic Father John Barham, the Beccles priest. Both are presented as “eminently good men”, doing good works and presenting a good example. The bishop’s sermons are always well done, but they have no passion. Whether or not he has any faith does not seem to be Trollope’s issue—it’s that the bishop inspires no faith in others. I thought Trollope’s use of a Catholic priest to say the following excerpts strengthened their impact:

- "The English people, or some of them,—that some being the richest, and, at present, the most powerful,—like to play at having a Church, though there is not sufficient faith in them to submit to the control of a Church."
- "It is what you were taught as a child before you had made profession of your faith to a bishop, in order that you might know your duty when you had ceased to be a child. I quite agree, however, that the matter, as viewed by your Church, is childish altogether, and intended only for children. As a rule, adults with you want no religion."
- "I don't know that it is worse than a belief which is no belief," said the priest with energy;—"than a creed which sits so easily on a man that he does not even know what it contains, and never asks himself as he repeats it, whether it be to him credible or incredible."

Trollope’s repeated trope of Father Barham’s work resonates in several ways: “It might be that he had sowed some seed. It might be that he had, at any rate, ploughed some ground. Even the attempt to plough the ground was a good work which would not be forgotten.” Does Trollope view himself as plowing and sowing with this book? I think to some extent yes, especially early on when his social and moral points were made with a heavy hand. These comments are not exactly lightly made, but the overall tone has generally lightened. It’s as if he realized the ground he aims at plowing would potentially yield more with humor and a deft touch.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, marriage is viewed as a business transaction by many of the characters. Melmotte’s concern on how a potential son-in-law would behave with his money rather than how his daughter would be treated paints women as a lesser part of the chattel changing hands during marriage. Don’t shed any tears for the female characters in this book, though. Most of them prove to be strong, action-oriented characters (although within societal constraints) while most of the men are passive and immature. The female characters plot and scheme while the men idly go with the flow. Some of the women are simply building castles in the air with their schemes but many realize the areas of power they control and exert themselves where they can.

Lady Carbury’s industry and activity stands in the forefront, especially when compared to her son Felix. If it weren’t for the mother, Felix would have never proposed to Marie Melmotte. Lady Carbury’s drive to have her family succeed seems like a powerful force of nature. Even female characters constricted in their movements and place have plans on how to obtain their desires, such as Georgiana Longestaffe’s wish to live in London and her schemes to do so. I foresee even the women who appear passive to this point growing in their ability to fight against coercion—we’ll see if this prediction follows or not.

It takes two to tango
At its heart, The Way We Live Now points to the dishonesty that Trollope saw in many facets of life and society. While we haven’t seen much of the swindler Augustus Melmotte to this point, his reputation precedes him. All the characters “know” Melmotte to be a swindler, or at least that that is his reputation, yet they are willing to not only deal with him but fight for his notice and blessing. As Roger Carbury puts it, “He is one whom we would not admit into our kitchens, much less to our tables, on the score of his own merits. But because he has learned the art of making money, we not only put up with him, but settle upon his carcase as so many birds of prey." It is the second part of that equation that Trollope takes delicious aim at so far in this book. The misdeeds of those preying on others are allowed to speak for themselves, but those willing to compromise their morals (or what should have been their morals) in order to be preyed upon receive special disapprobation from Trollope.

Roger Carbury, the moral touchstone so far in the novel, accurately judges Lady Carbury’s character, which represents many characters as well: “[S]he was essentially worldly, believing that good could come out of evil, that falsehood might in certain conditions be better than truth, that shams and pretences might do the work of true service, that a strong house might be built upon the sand!”

Which leads to Trollope's point--a swindle isn’t successful unless there is someone willing to be swindled. Trollope targets those who are willing to take moral shortcuts in order to enrich themselves…they end up being cheapened in addition to cheated. The following excerpt highlights what people wish or prefer to see will guide their behavior instead of reality, a recurring theme:
Sir Felix, however, hardly spoke at all, played very little, and watched Miles Grendall without seeming to watch him. At last he felt certain that he saw a card go into the man's sleeve, and remembered at the moment that the winner had owed his success to a continued run of aces. He was tempted to rush at once upon the player, and catch the card on his person. But he feared. Grendall was a big man; and where would he be if there should be no card there? And then, in the scramble, there would certainly be at any rate a doubt. And he knew that the men around him would be most unwilling to believe such an accusation. Grasslough was Grendall's friend, and Nidderdale and Dolly Longestaffe would infinitely rather be cheated than suspect any one of their own set of cheating them. He feared both the violence of the man he should accuse, and also the unpassive good humour of the others. He let that opportunity pass by, again watched, and again saw the card abstracted. Thrice he saw it, till it was wonderful to him that others also should not see it. As often as the deal came round, the man did it. Felix watched more closely, and was certain that in each round the man had an ace at least once. It seemed to him that nothing could be easier. (emphasis mine)

So “be cheated” they shall. Additional scorn is heaped on Paul Montague, the character who suspects something is amiss but becomes easily bought and paid for. He has “a sorely burdened conscience” about the Great South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway Company, not understanding the arrangement but fearing dishonesty. Yet he does nothing, yeilding to temptation to enjoy the new-found money stream directed his way. For him and many others, that “the money was very pleasant to him” sweeps aside any compunction or concern.

Is The Way We Live Now the way we live now?
I’ll try and hold off on this question until the end, but something I want to keep in mind as I read.

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