Midway mark: Cinderella at the ball

(At the Chapter XIV mark of Alice Adams, what’s on our minds?)

Monica: Why is this giving me weird flashbacks? First Alice gets absolutely snubbed at the party in which she dreams of meeting Mr. Right. Her poor little violets, which she hunted for in the fields because her family couldn’t afford a bouquet, just absolutely wilt under the withering gaze of the elite girls who can afford to dress to impress. Such bitchiness!  And then, horror upon horrors, her brother is discovered fraternizing with the, ahem, “African American” help. Shooting craps! By an eligible bachelor no less. Oh lawd, oh lawd…

No but seriously, girls can be so mean, no matter what age. I think Alice does marvelously by herself, especially in the art of pretending she’s waiting for someone…. She engages in “the art of seeming to have an escort or partner when there is none. The practitioner must imply, merely by expression and attitude, the the supposed companion has left her for only moments, the she herself has sent him upon and errand; and, it possible, the minds of observers must be directed toward a conclusion that this errand of her devising is an amusing one…”  Pretending that you’re not bored or abandoned or uncomfortable is so much easier now that we have cellphones….


Tom: Absolutely, all hail the mighty cellphone, patron saint of people at a loose end at parties! I was completely wrong about Alice being a largely carefree young lass; it’s clear she’s deeply unhappy and devotes her life to dissembling and trying to appear hopeful and upbeat not just to the wider world, but also within the family sphere. So much dissembling, and dissembling within dissembling – it’s exhausting just reading about it.

Ever since you mentioned Alice’s hands I’ve been obsessed by them, it’s positively fetishistic. What could they mean, these hands that have never been reduced to scrubbing floors? Are they symbols of purity? Of elegance? Of bodily sexuality coyly masquerading behind a mere arm?

Monica: Her hands are definitely a symbol of purity and girlish beauty and innocence. Also of her budding womanly expression. By the end of the book, I have a feeling that they will be rough as a sailor’s and swollen (but maybe still pretty beneath). I already like Alice better than I did at the beginning, she has layers. You’re right, she is deeply unhappy, but yet happy enough with her family that she wants to keep up appearances. I do feel sorry for her father. This is not going to end well. Also, Alice’s lies with the handsome gentleman caller is going to catch up to her…..

Can we just discuss for a minute her older brother Walter? WHAT is his deal. He obviously hates the white elite (maybe white people in general) – but he’s also disdainful of people in general. Especially his little sister, whom he seems to have a soft spot for and yet treats her quite atrociously I think…. And very mean, sallow and sneaky. Maybe he won’t die, he’ll be the antagonist.

Katherine Hepburn as Alice Adams and Frank Albertson as Walter in the film adaptation.

Tom: His primary function seems to be to act as the antithesis of Alice. Where she seeks to join the realms of the city elite, he sniffs out the opposite end of society, gambling with the servants and indulging in other ‘low’ pursuits. I find Walter sympathetic, because he refuses to play by the rules of the “silk-shirt crowd,” as he calls them. He flies in the face of the stuck-up snobs where Alice seeks only to propitiate, and in some ways that makes him appear much braver than his sister.

I also appreciate how he (albeit rather brutally) cuts through all the artifice that Alice tries to weave. I find myself getting exasperated by the lies upon lies upon lies that she weaves about her, as if they will protect her from harm. “What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive,”as Sir Walter Scott put it.

It’s interesting to note that the novel was published a few years before the Great Depression, and thus several of the people that ignore Alice at the party would soon have become destitute…This makes me rather happy.


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