Term Paper: Conflict Between Social Classes

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Social Conflict

Europe Triumphant -- Social Conflict in the novels of Wharton and James

American money is new, hard-won, but lacks the class and sophistication of European culture. European culture is ossified and Europe lacks the social mobility of America, or at least Europe has, until recently, now that Europe needs American money. Europe has a sensitivity that American industry does not foster within the hearts of the capitalists who profit most from the American system. Neither old Europe nor new America, neither a static or upwardly mobile society is complete entity in and of itself. Europe desires American money; America desires that elusive concept of European class. But despite American brio and wealth, it is Europe who gets her way, and triumphs over American values. This lack of societal completeness is manifest in the social dramas of Henry James the American and the Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. James' novel suggests that even an American who covets and respects the sophistication of European nobility cannot buy his way into this sensibility, nor lose his American sheen. In Wharton's novel, the crass, social-climbing heroine Undine Spragg's social aspirations triumph over the faux American aristocracy of her first husband Ralph Marvell, but Undine is vanquished by the 'real' European manifestation of class in the form of her second, French aristocratic husband.

James' protagonist is named Christopher Newman. James' choice for the name of the wealthy, American hero is no accident. Newman is 'new,' not because of his status of being middle-aged (his is described as an early retirement), but because Newman represents new American values of commercialism in the eyes of his European friends. "He [Newman] liked making up parties of his friends and conducting them to the theatre, and taking them to drive on high drags or to dine at remote restaurants. He liked doing things which involved his paying for people; the vulgar truth is that he enjoyed 'treating' them." (James, Chapter 17) Newman enjoys this sense of control through wealth, a very American concept.

At the beginning of the James novel, Newman is seen gazing at the pictures of the Paris Louvre, which he experiences as a kind of an attractive and beautiful marketplace of old European art curiosities and cultural majesty. Newman covets these offerings of Europe, much as a woman might covet objects of commerce in a store, but the culture of Europe, although it can be experienced visually or aurally by an American in a museum or by listening to an opera, cannot be purchased like an American object made in a factory. Symbolically, art students are making reproductions of old art works in the Louvre, giving the illusion that the works can be taken away from their European museum 'home' even though the real objects cannot -- only inferior copies can be removed, like the copy of European aristocracy Newman will attempt to make himself into, over the course of James' novel. Unlike Wharton's Undine, Christopher Newman does have a real appreciation for European class and culture, while Undine simply adores fancy foods and dress at the beginning of her novel, although she is also the product of American commerce. But Newman's more enlightened and mature quest proves just as quixotic in its realization as that of Wharton's less polished heroine.

Newman is described as a muscular Christian, almost like a physical object in and of himself, but of strength and power, rather than of art. Newman gives his nationality away almost immediately "An observer with anything of an eye for national types would have had no difficulty in determining the local origin of this undeveloped connoisseur, and indeed such an observer might have felt a certain humorous relish of the almost ideal completeness with which he filled out the national mould. The gentleman on the divan was a powerful specimen of an American." (James, Chapter 1, italics mine) Newman is strong, he is not undeveloped in the sense of someone who is weak and sickly, he is undeveloped in his schooling in European attitudes.

Far more attractive than any of the portraits that Newman encounters, for he is initially "baffled on the aesthetic question" of the painting's cultural worth, is Claire de Cintre, with whom Newman falls in love. At first, her family is intrigued. After all, Newman has made "a pile of money" and is a veteran of the Civil War. (James, Chapter 2) He is not lacking in intelligence or energy. However, when Newman first proposes to Claire, he speaks almost as if he were making a business proposition or starting a negotiation, rather than a declaration of love. The real obstacle, however, is not Claire, but the social discomfort of Claire's family, who eventually prevent the couple's marriage. Although Newman's worldly success has bought him the leisure of an old-fashioned aristocrat, it cannot buy him the social cache that enables him to transcend European prejudices. Ironically, Newman traveled to Europe to escape what he disliked about America, some of the worst facets he was exposed to while he was making his fortune. But because Newman lacks an 'old' name, literally and figuratively, and the kind of subtle refinement in his bearing and demeanor that is evident to persons such as Claire's mother Madame de Bellegarde, and Claire's older brother, Urbain de Bellegarde his money cannot ingrate him into the family's social circle. Claire's mother is described, in contrast to Newman's evident health, as having a "white, intense, respectable countenance, with its formal gaze," and the face's "circumscribed smile, suggested a document signed and sealed; a thing of parchment, ink, and ruled lines. 'She is a woman of conventions and proprieties,' he [Newman] said to himself as he looked at her; 'her world is the world of things immutably decreed,'" unlike the changing world of America Newman is accustomed to, where everything can be bargained. (James, Chapter 11)

Newman cannot transcend the taint of his commercial origins and the source of his wealth. He remains the American of the title, and Claire's family would prefer to see her exiled to a convent than enrich the family with what they see as ill-gotten gains. There is no such thing as a new man in Europe. Newman's status as an American wishing to infiltrate, ape, and purchase European culture actually makes him weaker rather than stronger, just like the figure of Ralph Marvell, an American Massachusetts aristocrat in Wharton's novel who marries Undine, and tries to act like an European man of leisure and sensitivity. He is spiritually and morally crushed by Undine's self-esteem and open social-climbing. At least Undine, unlike Ralph or Christopher, has no illusions about what makes an American attractive to Europeans -- it is money, and money alone.

The fate of marginal figures in both novels who attempt to strike a balance between both worlds, like Ralph Marvell or like Claire's younger brother in the American, suggest that it is impossible for Europe occupy a more reasonable and tolerant cultural position in relation to America. By giving this character the fate dying in a duel, a form of old, European honor-killing, James also suggests, like Wharton, that such an combined ideal of American class combined with European schooling will always be short-lived. One cannot staple European morals and aristocracy onto American life and personhood, America is too new, even Ralph Marvell is too 'new' in his name, in comparison to the French aristocracy Undine eventually marries into, later in the Wharton novel. At the end of James' novel, Newman cannot even bring himself to use the murderous de Bellegarde family secret against the family that has dashed his hopes and dreams, because of his principled, American nature that believes that seeking revenge to settle old scores is wrong. European class and refinement may be unmasked as ugly and murderous, but it will continue to wear its social face to the world, in the beauty of the opera, art, and female forms adored by interlopers like Newman. It continues to give off its perfume of fascination, to 'keep' its secrets and women, despite American's greater ability to pay for its physical treasures.

It might be argued that Edith Wharton's novel, because the even more crass Undine Spragg, temporarily triumps over the effete, American social icon Ralph Marvell, she shows that a woman can buy her way higher in society. At first, in Wharton's novel, the persons who earn their fortunes through trade who aspire to become, and marry into, the rarified Massachusetts aristocracy seem to gain social cache. This is possible in America, however, but not amongst the French, who clearly wish to put Undine in her place.

At the beginning of the novel, Undine's family is clearly new money, as is evidenced from the florid carpeting that covers the Spragg rooms in the opening chapter, to Wharton's description of the heroine: "Undine's beauty was as vivid, and almost as crude, as the brightness suffusing it. Her black brows, her reddish-tawny hair and the pure red and white… [END OF PREVIEW]

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