Rachel Cusk on novels that present indelible portraits of disgrace
1. The House of Mirth
By Edith Wharton
The compromised woman has been a popular constant in the literature of disgrace: By the time Edith Wharton wrote “The House of Mirth,” the Victorian novel had rather gorged itself on this horror. Wharton offers a more modern account of female dependence and vulnerability, one better suited to the social and material aspirations of her time. Wharton’s genius was for showing the way a society processes its moral problems by destroying individuals. The monied New York that is her milieu here is wavering between the Christian propriety of the Old World and the amoral materialism of the New. Lily Bart is the victim, in a sense, of this vacillation. Her journey to disgrace is a brilliantly riddling one: She finds herself unable to marry cynically, and so she tries, feebly, to break through into a new independence in her relationships with men and in her attitude toward money. Half a century later she would have succeeded; as it is, she finds herself cast out and meets an end of singular ignominy and pathos.
By Sinclair Lewis
Harcourt, Brace, 1922
George F. Babbitt is a family man, community pillar and real-estate agent with an almost religious zeal for his way of life in the fictitious boom city of Zenith. He is even a member of a club called the Boosters, whose sole purpose is to celebrate and vaunt Zenith’s virtues wherever possible. Yet Babbitt contains a dangerous grain or two of sensitivity, enough for him to wonder occasionally what would happen if he didn’t “boost.” In his most private moments he can admit that he finds his wife dull, his children irritating, his job unfulfilling. And one way or another these thoughts cease to be so private: Babbitt becomes, without ever quite meaning to, something of a dissenter. His consequent rejection by his community is instant and vicious, frightening in its middle-class brutality.
3. Noon Wine
By Katherine Anne Porter
“Noon Wine” is a masterpiece of moral and artistic clarity. A simple farmer in Texas named Thompson takes on a hired man, Helton, a saturnine Swede who far surpasses him in hard work and husbandry. As the years pass, the once untidy farm becomes efficient and profitable under the silent stranger’s direction. The Thompson family overcomes its initial suspicion of Helton—but then he becomes the instrument of Thompson’s disgrace. A man arrives to arrest the Swede, who is a wanted criminal, and Thompson, mistakenly thinking that the man is physically harming his friend, kills the visitor. The farmer avoids jail, but his neighbors—as he finds, with mounting desperation—want nothing to do with him. Katherine Anne Porter’s skill is to pitch all this in a middle ground of absolute ordinariness, where notions of good and evil, of beauty and ugliness, of the instincts of self and the requirements of society, have never been consciously examined.
4. Death in Venice
By Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann’s tale of a distinguished writer’s moral decline through his obsession with a young boy is perhaps the most incisive commentary in literature on the meaning—and loss— of reputation. The novel, first published in Germany in 1912, explores Freud’s theory of the death drive as a human motivation that rivals the drive toward success. Just as people are driven to make and to do, so they are compelled to destroy and undo. In the case of Aschenbach, the writer in the story, this undoing involves the dismantling of his whole complex system of life as an acknowledgment of, a preparation for, the death of the body. At a hotel in Venice he is gradually divested of every shred of physical and intellectual dignity while a cholera epidemic devastates the city around him.
5. Sister Carrie
By Theodore Dreiser
This portrait of late 19th-century America shows a new country’s morality evolving as rapidly and pragmatically as its economy. Society is in flux, magnetized and mesmerized by success. Disgrace, in this climate, takes the unitary form of financial failure. George Hurstwood could have got by on hypocrisy, adultery and lies, but when he loses his position as manager of a prestigious Chicago gentleman’s club he is courting certain doom. Carrie, for love of whom he has made this error, fears that her status as a “kept woman” will bring about her own downfall. But no one has time to care about such niceties when they concern a beautiful woman who is fast finding fame as an actress. Hurstwood is reduced to that disgrace of all disgraces, beggary; Carrie is elevated to those celestial heights where people ask themselves whether money and fame really bring happiness after all.
Ms. Cusk’s latest novel, “The Bradshaw Variations,” was recently published in paperback.