(After finishing Alice Adams, we dissect the final scenes, argue over what it was all about and reveal what will stay with us)
Tom: It all seemed to be going so well. And then everything imploded.
Dinner party to seal the deal with Alice’s love interest:
Potential big-money business of glue factory:
Dissolute son staying just the right side of the law and not embezzling money:
On the upside, nobody died. Monica, I’m sure you’re disappointed.
Monica: How was it so hard for me to read those final few chapters…. starting with the dinner party. I knew it was going to go terribly… I THOUGHT there was something not quite right about Arthur’s gentle niceness. Just goes to show that well-bred people are weak and more worried about appearances than true character. OH GOD that dinner party. It was horrific, and Boothy-boy did such a good job creating this sense of heavy foreboding over such little things. The horrible heat that threatened to engulf the city. Alice scrubbing and scrubbing at the soot. The discount flowers that wilted. Crazy poppa. That horrific maid… what was up with that? The whole family trying to be something that they were not… Oh god, I had to read with one eye, it was so incredibly suspenseful without much happening at all. And then, all shit hit the fan. Why, oh why Boothy-boy? WHAT WERE YOU TRYING TO TELL US?? Oh Tom, what foul comment was he making on this godforsaken world? (and WHY didn’t he KILL anybody… especially that meany face Mildred…)
Tom: I’m not entirely sure I agree with you on the well-bred being more worried about appearances than true character. I think it was more about a fundamental inability to see true character across the class divide. It’s notable that the only time in the novel we stray from the Adams family is to see the luncheon at the Palmers. It’s so effortlessly elegant, and Mrs. Palmer so offhandedly dismissive of the “pushing” Alice. This sets things up so that when privileged Alfred goes to dinner at the Adams house later that day, he sees only sordidness and the deception, not the well-meaning effort that went into the whole charade or the desire to please. He no longer sees that Alice cares for him, only that she is a fraud. A similar thing happens with Mr. Lamb and Mr. Adams: both see the other as shysters, misjudging each other’s motives and actions.
I have a theory that this novel is about not having dreams. Perhaps the clearest illustration of this is not from our chirpy heroine – though her hopes of a grand marriage and joining the ranks of the well-to-do are well and truly crushed by the finale – but in her father Virgil, whose glue factory could have been something, before it is coolly swept away by captain of industry Mr. Lamb. Lamb does spare the Adams family complete ignominy, but he makes sure they are kept in their place. Tarkington’s message seems to be: don’t dream, just work hard; work hard to eke out an existence. It may not be much in the way of things, but it’ll be alright. Don’t aim for too much or you may find yourself descending rather than ascending the societal ladder.
Monica: Hm, I don’t think Tarkington’s message is “don’t dream, just work hard” at all – that’s even darker than all of my earlier predictions of death and destruction wreaked upon this poor little family. The ending had an almost hopeful note, indicating that the message may be a little more American – pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, don’t rely on anyone else. The path Alice had been avoiding all that time because of societal views is also a light at the end of the tunnel… it looks oppressive and dark and dingy from the outside, but upstairs, someone has opened a window… and there is light, and fresh air. Yes, Boothy darling is saying for the characters to work hard on their own path. But I think he’s also highlighting the importance of the “true path.” Think about it. Daddy is a good man, but fails when he basically takes another mans idea without getting his blessing, even though there was no proper patent. The bro-bro fails when he embezzles (obvi). Alice fails when she tries to convince Arthur that she is something that she’s not. But yet, the world opens up and she finds peace when she accepts her path, but also realizes that she may guide where the path may lead.
Tom: Come on, that’s over-optimistic! She sees light at the end of the tunnel, agreed. However, I don’t think she finds peace. There’s the possibility that eventually working for her own bread (after first attending Frincke’s Business College) won’t be as awful as she first anticipated, but remember that we don’t see beyond her going up the stairs into Frincke’s. The final lines:
“…with a little heave of the shoulders, she went bravely in, under the sign, and began to climb the wooden steps. Half-way up the shadows were heaviest, but after that the place began to seem brighter. There was an open window overhead somewhere, she found; and the steps at the top were gay with sunshine.”
Her future is perhaps to get her bottom slapped daily by male coworkers while working in a steno pool. I realise I’m being a bit pessimistic, which goes against the tone of Alice Adams, and I do agree with you the ending has a hopeful mood. How rightly this book is called Alice Adams, because it’s just like our heroine: sad on occasion, but overall upbeat. Even the most upsetting occurrences – snubbed at the ball, hosting a disastrous dinner where her hopes of marrying Mr. Russell are dashed to smithereens – are rendered with a touch of the comedic, the drama always kept in check by a light-hearted spirit. For instance, this little excerpt from the ill-fated dinner:
“The expiring roses expressed not beauty but pathos, and what faint odour they exhaled was no rival to the lusty emanations of the Brussels sprouts; at the head of the table, Adams, sitting low in his chair, appeared to be unable to flatten the uprising wave of his starched bosom; and Gertrude’s manner and expression were of a recognizable hostility during the long period of vain waiting for the cups of soup to be emptied.”
Monica: Well, maybe his message is we should all just accept who we are, and the roads that we must travel. Something a bit more bittersweet, a rumination on existence and the funny little antics of the human condition. This little book sneaks up without you noticing and packs a rather emotional wallop. Even though it was written at a very different time, within different context, it makes you think carefully about the ways our world works. Makes you wonder at the paths we all find ourselves looking down. Makes you think carefully about the fabric of life we weave around us.