McTeague is a dentist of limited intellect from a poor miner's family, who has opened a dentist shop on Polk Street in San Francisco. (His first name is never revealed; other characters in the novel call him simply "Mac.") His best friend, Marcus Schouler, brings his cousin, Trina Sieppe, whom he is courting, to McTeague's parlor for dental work. McTeague becomes infatuated with her while working on her teeth, and Marcus graciously steps aside. McTeague successfully woos Trina. Shortly after McTeague and Trina have kissed and declared their love for each other, Trina discovers that she has won $5000 from a lottery ticket. In the ensuing celebration Trina's mother, Mrs Sieppe, announces that McTeague and Trina are to marry. Marcus becomes jealous of McTeague, and claims that he has been cheated out of money that would have been rightfully his if he had married Trina.
The marriage takes place, and Mrs Sieppe, along with the rest of Trina's family, move away from San Francisco, leaving her alone with McTeague. Trina proves to be a parsimonious wife; she refuses to touch the principal of her $5000, which she invests with her uncle. She insists that she and McTeague must live on the earnings from McTeague's dental practice, the small income from the $5000 investment, and the bit of money she earns from carving small wooden figures of Noah's animals and his Ark for sale in her uncle's shop. Secretly, she accumulates penny-pinched savings in a locked trunk. Though the couple are happy, the friendship between Marcus and Mac deteriorates. More than once the two men come to grips; each time McTeague's immense physical strength prevails, and eventually he breaks Marcus' arm in a fight. When Marcus recovers, he goes south, intending to become a rancher; before he leaves, he visits the McTeagues, and he and Mac part apparently as friends.
Catastrophe strikes when McTeague is debarred from practising dentistry by the authorities; it becomes clear that before leaving, Marcus has taken revenge on Mac by informing city hall that he has no license or degree. McTeague loses his practice and the couple are forced to move into successively poorer quarters as Trina becomes more and more miserly. Their life together deteriorates until McTeague takes all Trina's domestic savings (amounting to $400 or roughly $10,000 in 2010 values) and abandons her. Meanwhile, Trina falls completely under the spell of money and withdraws the principal of her prior winnings in gold from her uncle's firm so she can admire and handle the coins in her room, at one point spreading them over her bed and rolling around in them.
When McTeague returns, destitute once more, she refuses to give him money even for food. Aggravated and made violent by whisky, McTeague beats her to death. He takes the entire hoard of gold and heads out to a mining community that he had left years before. Sensing pursuit, he makes his way south towards Mexico; meanwhile, Marcus hears of the murder and joins the hunt for McTeague, finally catching him in Death Valley. In the middle of the desert Marcus and McTeague fight over McTeague's remaining water and, when that is lost and they are already doomed, over Trina's $5,000. McTeague kills Marcus, but as he dies, Marcus handcuffs himself to McTeague. The final, dramatic image of the novel is one of McTeague stranded, alone and helpless. He is left with only the company of Marcus's corpse, to whom he is handcuffed, in the desolate, arid waste of Death Valley.
Frank Norris' novel McTeague is classified as a Naturalistic novel. Naturalists believed that nature was the most powerful element in existence. Therefore, the Naturalistic text illustrates that mankind bows to the power of nature.
This said, the themes of Naturalistic texts mirror this idea. According to the idea presented in the novel, the nature of things exists as the most powerful image and reality. For example, McTeague begins the story as a very simplistic man. As the story moves forward, McTeague begins to change. He believes himself to be far more than the primitive man in the opening of the novel. In the end, McTeague returns to his simplicity (masked by his animalistic nature to simply survive).
Outside of the theme of survival, McTeague illustrates the typical "American Dream" turned wrong. While the story does show the movement from poor to wealthy, it also depicts the tragic fall many face when in search of their dream. Also highlighted in this idea is the concept that wealth equals power. That said, the novel completes the circle of failure when it illustrates the fall from wealth also means the fall from power.
In the end, the novel possesses two major themes: wealth and power.
The story opens with Jimmie, at this point a young boy, trying by himself to fight a gang of boys from an opposing neighborhood. He is saved by his friend, Pete, and comes home to his sister Maggie, his toddling brother Tommie, his brutal and drunken father and mother, Mary Johnson. The parents terrify the children until they are shuddering in the corner.
Years pass, the father and Tommie die, and Jimmie hardens into a sneering, aggressive, cynical youth. He gets a job as a teamster, having no regard for anyone but firetrucks who would run him down. Maggie begins to work in a shirt factory, but her attempts to improve her life are undermined by her mother's drunken rages. Maggie begins to date Jimmie's friend Pete, who has a job as a bartender and seems a very fine fellow, convinced that he will help her escape the life she leads. He takes her to the theater and the museum. One night Jimmie and Mary accuse Maggie of "Goin to deh devil", essentially kicking her out of the tenement, throwing her lot in with Pete. Jimmie goes to Pete's bar and picks a fight with him (even though he himself has ruined other boys' sisters). As the neighbors continue to talk about Maggie, Jimmie and Mary decide to join them in badmouthing her instead of defending her.
Later, Nellie, a "woman of brilliance and audacity" convinces Pete to leave Maggie, whom she calls "a little pale thing with no spirit." Thus abandoned, Maggie tries to return home but is rejected by her mother and scorned by the entire tenement. In a later scene, a prostitute, implied to be Maggie, wanders the streets, moving into progressively worse neighborhoods until, reaching the river, she is followed by a grotesque and shabby man. The next scene shows Pete drinking in a saloon with six fashionable women "of brilliance and audacity." He passes out, whereupon one, possibly Nellie, takes his money. In the final chapter, Jimmie tells his mother that Maggie is dead. The mother exclaims, ironically, as the neighbors comfort her, "I'll forgive her!"
The atmosphere of the novel breeds a moral hypocrisy as the characters struggle to justify their own immoral actions. Mr. Johnson yells at his wife to stop always "poundin' a kid" after he has just savagely kicked Jimmie in an attempt to break up the street fight. Mrs. Johnson, who is more brutal to her children than her husband, declares Maggie to be a disgrace to the family and questions "who would t'ink such a bad girl could grow up in our fambly." Jimmie, who has abandoned many young women in the same manner as Pete has done with Maggie, declares that he will kill Pete for his treatment of her. Yet, he wonders only "vaguely" whether "some of the women of his acquaintance had brothers. Nevertheless, his mind did not for an instant confuse himself with those brothers nor his sister with theirs."
A subtle social hypocrisy is revealed in Maggie's relationship with Pete. Survival for men in this atmosphere depends on them gaining an exaggerated sense of their own superiority coupled with an attitude of complete independence. That avenue is not open for women like Maggie, whose only escape is through utter dependence on a man. Ironically, when she adopts the illusory vision that Pete promotes, she loses her own sense of herself and as a result reduces her standing in Pete's eyes. When her family turns her out because of the neighborhood's condemnation of her relationship with Pete, she is forced to become what they insist she already is and always has been. Her inability to endure this life prompts her to commit suicide.
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets has more bruises, scrapes, punches, and flying objects than a Bruce Lee movie and a Bruce Willis movie combined. There is violence from beginning to end, and it comes in all shapes and sizes—it's an inevitable part of life in the Bowery. Whether Mary is beating Jimmie because she finds out he's been fighting, Jimmie's seeing red as pedestrians cross the street, or Mary's meeting her maker, nobody escapes the anger-fueled ways of tenement life in this era. Here, violence is as normal as eating, sleeping, and going to work. "The Open Boat" is divided into seven sections, each told mainly from the point of view of the correspondent, based upon Crane himself. The first part introduces the four characters—the correspondent, a condescending observer detached from the rest of the group; the captain, who is injured and morose at having lost his ship, yet capable of leadership; the cook, fat and comical, but optimistic that they will be rescued; and the oiler, Billie, who is physically the strongest, and the only one in the story referred to by name. The four are survivors of a shipwreck, which occurred before the beginning of the story, and are drifting at sea in a small dinghy.
In the following four sections, the moods of the men fluctuate from anger at their desperate situation, to a growing empathy for one another and the sudden realization that nature is indifferent to their fates. The men become fatigued and bicker with one another; nevertheless, the oiler and the correspondent take turns rowing toward shore, while the cook bails water to keep the boat afloat.
When they see a lighthouse on the horizon, their hope is tempered with the realization of the danger of trying to reach it. Their hopes dwindle further when, after seeing a man waving from shore, and what may or may not be another boat, they fail to make contact. The correspondent and the oiler continue to take turns rowing, while the others sleep fitfully during the night. The correspondent then notices a shark swimming near the boat, but he does not seem to be bothered by it as one would expect. In the penultimate chapter, the correspondent wearily recalls a verse from the poem "Bingen on the Rhine" by Caroline Norton, in which a "soldier of the Legion" dies far from home.
The final chapter begins with the men's resolution to abandon the floundering dinghy they have occupied for thirty hours and to swim ashore. As they begin the long swim to the beach, Billie the oiler, the strongest of the four, swims ahead of the others; the captain advances towards the shore while still holding onto the boat, and the cook uses a surviving oar. The correspondent is trapped by a local current, but is eventually able to swim on. After three of the men safely reach the shore and are met by a group of rescuers, they find Billie dead, his body washed up on the beach.
Similar to other Naturalist works, "The Open Boat" scrutinizes the position of man, who has been isolated not only from society, but also from God and nature. The struggle between man and the natural world is the most apparent theme in the work, and while the characters at first believe the turbulent sea to be a hostile force set against them, they come to believe that nature is instead ambivalent. At the beginning of the last section, the correspondent rethinks his view of nature's hostility: "the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual—nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent."
The correspondent regularly refers to the sea with feminine pronouns, pitting the four men in the boat against an intangible, yet effeminate, threat; critic Leedice Kissane further pointed to the story's seeming denigration of women, noting the castaways' personification of Fate as "an old ninny-woman" and "an old hen". That nature is ultimately disinterested is an idea that appears in other works by Crane; a poem from Crane's 1899 collection War is Kind and Other Lines also echoes Crane's common theme of universal indifference:
The metaphysical conflicts born from man's isolation are also important themes throughout the story, as the characters cannot rely on a higher cause or being for protection. The correspondent laments the lack of religious support, as well as his inability to blame God for his misfortunes, musing: "When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply that there are no bricks and no temples." Man's perception of himself and the world around him are also constantly questioned; the correspondent regularly refers to the way things "seemed" or "appeared", leaving how a thing actually "was" entirely ambiguous. Wolford similarly pointed to the importance of the story's strong yet problematic opening line—"None of them knew the color of the sky"—as one that sets the scene for the story's sense of unease and uncertainty.
Chester Wolford noted in his critical analysis of Crane's short fiction that although one of the author's most familiar themes deals with a character's seeming insignificance in an indifferent universe, the correspondent's experience in "The Open Boat" is perhaps more personal than what was described in earlier stories because of Crane's obvious connection to the story. Sergio Perosa similarly described how Crane "transfigures an actual occurrence into existential drama, and confers universal meaning and poetic value on the simple retelling of man's struggle for survival".
Facing an ultimately detached nature, the characters find solace in human solidarity. They are often referred to collectively as "the men", rather than singularly by their professions, creating a silent understanding between them of their togetherness. The first few sentences of section three attest to this connection: "It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him.
They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends, friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common." Survival is also an important thematic element in itself, as it is contingent upon the men to battle the elements in order to save themselves. The correspondent's desire to survive is evident in his refrain of the lyrical line: "If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?" By repeating himself, the correspondent expresses himself ritualistically, and yet he remains existentially adrift.
One of the main themes of the story concerns the limitations of any one perspective, or point of view. Crane's famous first sentence of the story presents this theme immediately: "None of them knew the color of the sky.'' The men in the boat are so focused on the danger presented to them by the waves that they are oblivious to all else. The story continually emphasizes the limitations of a single perspective. When the shipwrecked men are first spotted from the shore, they are mistaken for fishermen. The people on shore do not perceive their distress and only wave cheerfully to the men.
Crane writes of the men in the boat that if they were viewed ''from a balcony, the whole thing would doubtless have been weirdly picturesque.'' This serene perspective contrasts markedly with the frightening and violent reality the men in the boat are experiencing. Crane's point seems to be that humans can never fully comprehend the true quality of reality, but only their own limited view of it. Throughout the story, the situation of the men in the boat seems to them "absurd," "preposterous," and without any underlying reason or meaning. Yet once the three survivors are safely on shore at the end of the story, they believe that they can look back and "interpret'' the import or meaning of what has happened to them. The reader is left to wonder whether anything can ever be truly understood, or if all understanding is simply an agreed-upon, limited perspective that provides the illusion of unity to the chaos of lived events.
The drama of the story comes from the men's realization that they are likely to drown. Having to confront the probability of their own imminent death, each of the characters accepts what Crane calls a ''new ignorance of the grave-edge.'' It is interesting that Crane refers to this understanding as "ignorance" rather than "knowledge." Being at the mercy of fate has demonstrated to them how wrong their previous beliefs about their own importance had been. The correspondent, in particular, is troubled by the senselessness of his predicament, and he thinks about a poem in which a French soldier dies, unceremoniously, far from his home and family. Facing senseless death, the universe suddenly seems deprived of the meaning he had previously attached to it. Thus, he is overtaken by a new "ignorance" about life, rather than a new "knowledge.'' Crane seems to endorse the idea that nature is random and senseless by having the oiler drown in the surf. Of all the men, the oiler seemed the most likely to survive, being the most physically fit. His death implies that the others' survival was merely the result of good fortune. Once the survivors are safe from danger, however, death's senselessness is quickly forgotten. When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers. (6.3)
Question: What's the only thing worse than nature actively trying to destroy you? Answer: Nature not caring about you at all. That sounds like a pretty big screw you to us. It's like that big two-part episode of The Simpsons where Homer threatens to kill Mr. Burns for not knowing his name. Anyway, needless to say, this is a crucial turning point in our story. The men want to do something, anything, to make the universe notice them, acknowledge their existence, and maybe admit their lives are actually worth something. But as time goes on and things keep getting worse, they realize there isn't really anything they can do to be noticed.
In his struggle to reach the captain and the boat, he reflected that when one gets properly wearied, drowning must really be a comfortable arrangement, a cessation of hostilities accompanied by a large degree of relief, and he was glad of it, for the main thing in his mind for some moments had been horror of the temporary agony. He did not wish to be hurt. (7.30)
The correspondent's mental wheels keep spinning. Now he almost welcomes death, if only so he can finally stop worrying about it. It's like stressing and studying like crazy for a big test you have coming up, when at some point the thought occurs to you, "You know, even if I don't do well, I just want it to be over with." At this point, the correspondent is simply tired of struggling and worrying about struggling. Whatever happens, just make it easy and get it over with. Luckily for him, something does happen quickly and easily: his life is saved.
Dissatisfied with life in her rural Wisconsin home, 18-year-old Caroline "Sister Carrie" Meeber takes the train to Chicago, where her older sister Minnie, and Minnie's husband, Sven Hanson, have agreed to take her in. On the train, Carrie meets Charles Drouet, a traveling salesman, who is attracted to her because of her simple beauty and unspoiled manner. They exchange contact information, but upon discovering the "steady round of toil" and somber atmosphere at her sister's flat, she writes to Drouet and discourages him from calling on her there.
Carrie soon embarks on a quest for work to pay rent to her sister and her husband, and takes a job running a machine in a shoe factory. Before long, however, she is shocked by the coarse manners of both the male and female factory workers, and the physical demands of the job, as well as the squalid factory conditions, begin to take their toll. She also senses Minnie and Sven's disapproval of her interest in Chicago's recreational opportunities, particularly the theatre. One day, after an illness that costs her her job, she encounters Drouet on a downtown street. Once again taken by her beauty, and moved by her poverty, he encourages her to dine with him, where, over sirloin and asparagus, he persuades her to leave her sister and move in with him. To press his case, he slips Carrie two ten dollar bills, opening a vista of material possibilities to her. The next day, he rebuffs her feeble attempts to return the money, taking her shopping at a Chicago department store and securing a jacket she covets and some shoes. That night, she writes a good-bye note to Minnie and moves in with Drouet.
Drouet installs her in a much larger apartment, and their relationship intensifies as Minnie dreams about her sister's fall from innocence. She acquires a sophisticated wardrobe and, through his offhand comments about attractive women, sheds her provincial mannerisms, even as she struggles with the moral implications of being a kept woman. By the time Drouet introduces Carrie to George Hurstwood, the manager of Fitzgerald and Moy's - a respectable bar that Drouet describes as a "way-up, swell place" - her material appearance has improved considerably. Hurstwood, unhappy with and distant from his social-climbing wife and children, instantly becomes infatuated with Carrie's youth and beauty, and before long they start an affair, communicating and meeting secretly in the expanding, anonymous city.
One night, Drouet casually agrees to find an actress to play a key role in an amateur theatrical presentation of Augustin Daly's melodrama, "Under the Gaslight," for his local chapter of the Elks. Upon returning home to Carrie, he encourages her to take the part of the heroine. Unknown to Drouet, Carrie long has harbored theatrical ambitions and has a natural aptitude for imitation and expressing pathos. The night of the production - which Hurstwood attends at Drouet's invitation - both men are moved to even greater displays of affection by Carrie's stunning performance.
The next day, the affair is uncovered: Drouet discovers he has been cuckolded, Carrie learns that Hurstwood is married, and Hurstwood's wife, Julia, learns from acquaintances that Hurstwood has been out driving with another woman and deliberately excluded her from the Elks theatre night. After a night of drinking, and despairing at his wife's financial demands and Carrie's rejection, Hurstwood stumbles upon a large amount of cash in the unlocked safe in Fitzgerald and Moy's offices. In a moment of poor judgment, he succumbs to the temptation to embezzle a large sum of money. Inventing a false pretext of Drouet's sudden illness, he lures Carrie onto a train and escapes with her to Canada. Once they arrive in Montreal, Hurstwood's guilty conscience - and a private eye - induce him to return most of the stolen funds, but he realizes that he cannot return to Chicago. Hurstwood mollifies Carrie by agreeing to marry her, and the couple move to New York City.
In New York, Hurstwood and Carrie rent a flat where they live as George and Carrie Wheeler. Hurstwood buys a minority interest in a saloon and, at first, is able to provide Carrie with a satisfactory - if not lavish - standard of living. The couple grow distant, however, as Hurstwood abandons any pretense of fine manners toward Carrie, and she realizes that Hurstwood no longer is the suave, powerful manager of his Chicago days. Carrie's dissatisfaction only increases when she meets Robert Ames, a bright young scholar from Indiana and her neighbor's cousin, who introduces her to the idea that great art, rather than showy materialism, is worthy of admiration.
After only a few years, the saloon's landlord sells the property and Hurstwood's business partner expresses his intent to terminate the partnership. Too arrogant to accept most of the job opportunities available to him, Hurstwood soon discovers that his savings are running out and urges Carrie to economize, which she finds humiliating and distasteful. As Hurstwood lounges about, overwhelmed by apathy and foolishly gambling away most of his savings, Carrie turns to New York's theatres for employment and becomes a chorus girl. Once again, her aptitude for theatre serves her well, and, as the rapidly aging Hurstwood declines into obscurity, Carrie begins to rise from chorus girl to small speaking roles, and establishes a friendship with another chorus girl, Lola Osborne, who begins to urge Carrie to move in with her. In a final attempt to prove himself useful, Hurstwood becomes a scab, driving a Brooklyn streetcar during a streetcar operator's strike. His ill-fated venture, which lasts only two days, prompts Carrie to leave him; in her farewell note, she encloses twenty dollars.
Hurstwood ultimately joins the homeless of New York, taking odd jobs, falling ill with pneumonia, and finally becoming a beggar. Reduced to standing in line for bread and charity, he commits suicide in a flophouse. Meanwhile, Carrie achieves stardom, but finds that money and fame do not satisfy her longings or bring her happiness and that nothing will.
Each of Dreiser's characters in Sister Carrie search for their own "American Dreams"—the ones offered by a growing and prosperous democratic country. Carrie, a poor country girl, arrives in Chicago, filled with the expectations of acquiring the finer things in life. She imagines the elegant clothes she will wear, the exciting places to which she will go, and the fashionable people with whom she will associate, thinking that everyone who lives beyond the boundaries of her Midwestern state has achieved that higher status. Drouet seeks his own version of the American Dream. He has achieved a certain station in life and wears the clothes to prove it. He frequents the important establishments in town and has befriended many of the right people.
Yet, he pursues the other appointments that represent his dream, such as a beautiful woman to adorn his arm and his own home. Hurstwood has the woman, the established home and family, and a good position. He, though, wants more. He knows that his employers leave him out of important decision making, and he knows his friends like him for his position. He seeks love, appreciation, and more prestige.
Industrial growth brought the United States a period of prosperity during the late 1800s and early 1900s. With factories flourishing, job opportunities were abundant. People made good money in factory management positions and other white-collar jobs. Factory workers, however, not only earned low incomes, but they also worked long hours. Consequently, a wide division existed between the wealthy and the poor.
Carrie comes from a lower-middle-class background and determines that she will rise above it. Her sister's family, however, maintain the same struggling existence Carrie has always known. They have no time to enjoy leisure activities and no money to spend on them. Carrie wants more for herself.
Throughout Sister Carrie, the distinction between social classes is obvious. The clothes people wear, the homes in which they live, and the activities in which they are involved distinguish the rich from the poor. The wealthy wear stylish clothes and attend elaborate performances of the arts. The poor buy factory-made clothes and jeans and are lucky to go to the penny arcade or the local dance pavilion. In the final chapter, the description of Hurstwood's last days offers a vivid picture of the ultimate plight of the poorest.
Experiences contribute greatly to shaping people's identities. Carrie's transformation from the beginning of the novel to the end occurs as a result of her responses to her experiences. The Carrie who boards the train in Columbia City sits primly, trying to ignore the glances of the man seated near her. Having certain morals, Carrie hesitates to acknowledge Drouet's presence. Yet, she responds quickly to his initial comments to her and makes direct eye contact with him when she senses his interest in her. From this point on, Carrie allows herself to act in whatever manner benefits her. Leaving her sister's home and moving in with Drouet, for example, goes against all propriety her parents have taught her. She sees, though, that this action will get her closer to having what she wants. As she understands her value to others, she changes her identity accordingly. As a result, she never really has an identity but adjusts her "act" to fit the situation. In the end, this ability gains her recognition as an acclaimed actress but does not result in her achieving happiness. Once [Hurstwood] paused in an aimless, incoherent sort of way and looked through the windows of an imposing restaurant, before which blazed a fire sign, and through the large, plate windows of which could be seen the red and gold decorations, the palms, the white napery, and shining glassware, and, above all, the comfortable crowd [...] "Eat," he mumbled. "That's right, eat. Nobody else wants any. (47.37-38)
Hey, remember that homeless guy who asked Hurstwood for some change way back in the beginning of the novel? Does Hurstwood's failure to help him out affect our impression of him in passages like this?
Berry Hamilton, an emancipated black man, works as a butler for a wealthy white man Maurice Oakley. Berry lives in a small cottage a short distance away from the Oakley's place of residence. Berry lives with his wife, Fannie, and two children, Joe and Kitty. During a farewell dinner for Maurice's younger brother, Francis Oakley, it becomes known that a large sum of money has disappeared from Oakley residence due to Francis apparently being careless and leaving the key in the safe. Maurice soon convinces himself that Berry must have stolen the money. A court finds Berry guilty of the theft and sentences him to ten years of hard labor.
Maurice and his wife expel Fannie, Joe, and Kitty from the cottage. Unable to find work, Fannie and her children decide to move to New York. Once in New York, Joe begins work and starts regularly visiting the Banner Club. He begins dating an entertainer from the club named Hattie Sterling. To Fannie's disapproval, Hattie helps Kitty to find employment as a singer and actress. Joe's situation quickly declines and he becomes an alcoholic. Hattie breaks the relationship. Completely degraded, Joe strangles Hattie. Later, he confesses to the murder and finds himself in prison. With her husband and son in prison, Fannie is distraught. Kitty convinces Fannie to marry a man named Mr. Gibson.
Francis Oakley, who left for Paris to become an artist, sends a message to Maurice Oakley. When Maurice receives the letter, he postulates that it could be a message informing him of the artistic successes of Francis. To his dismay, it describes how Francis stole the money and he wishes for Berry Hamilton to be released from prison. Maurice decides that he will not announce Berry's innocence in hopes of preserving the honor of his brother and himself.
Mr. Skaggs, an acquaintance of Joe at the Banner Club, overhears the story of Berry Hamilton's conviction for theft. As a writer for New York's Universe, Mr. Skaggs postulates that if he can prove Berry's innocence, he will have a popular article for the publisher. He travels to the hometown of the Hamilton's to converse with Maurice Oakley. He first meets with a man named Colonel Saunders who tells him that he believes Berry is innocent, the money was simply lost, and to protect the secret, Maurice Oakley carries the money in his "secret" pocket at all times. To gain entry into the Oakley residence, Skaggs lies about having a letter from Francis. Mr. Skaggs forcibly removes Francis's letter from Maurice's secret pocket.
With Francis's letter, Mr. Skaggs is able to have Berry pardoned after five years in prison. Mr. Skaggs brings Berry to New York. Soon, Berry finds out about his son, daughter, and wife's new husband. Hopeless, Berry plans to murder his wife's suitor. To Berry's fortune, he finds that Mr. Gibson has been killed in a fight at a racetrack. Broken down by the hardships of the city, Fannie and Berry decide to move back to the cottage near the Oakley residence when the apologetic Mrs. Oakley begs them to return.
In The House of Mirth (1905), the story of Lily Bart begins with her visiting the apartment of Lawrence Selden, a man for whom she has romantic feelings, but whose pennilessness makes him ineligible to be her husband. Instead she decides that she must marry Percy Gryce, a young, timid millionaire. Although her confidantes are convinced that Percy will propose marriage to Lily when they next meet, Lily changes her mind, and withdraws from their relationship, because Selden's unexpected visit makes her realize how dishonorable marrying a man she does not care for would be. Despite feeling convinced that he loves Lily, Selden does not yet want to risk marriage; meanwhile, Gryce marries another girl, from within their social circle.
The tragic heroine of The House of Mirth (1905), Lily Bart, lingers at the broad staircase, observing the high-society people gathered in the hall below.
Her social standing begins to erode when Gus Trenor, husband of friend Judy, gives Lily a large sum of money, accepted in the innocent belief that it represents profits from investments Gus had made in her behalf. The rumors that arise from that transaction, worsened by her injudicious and mysterious visit to Gus's townhouse in the city, further erode Lily's social standing. In the event, Lily one day receives a note from Selden, who asks to meet with her. Certain that he will propose marriage, Lily agrees to meet him the next day. Surprised and alarmed by Lily's apparent change of heart, Selden flees New York City, first to Havana and then to Europe, cravenly leaving Lily with no notice.
To escape the rumors arisen from the gossip caused by her financial dealings with Gus Trenor, and also disappointed by Selden's emotional cowardice, Lily accepts Bertha Dorset's invitation to join her and her husband, George, on a cruise of Europe aboard their yacht, the Sabrina. Unfortunately, whilst at sea, Bertha falsely accuses Lily of adultery with George, in order to divert the attention and suspicion of their social circle away from Bertha's infidelity with the poet Ned Silverton. The ensuing social scandal ruins the personal reputation of Lily Bart, which then causes her abandonment by friends and disinheritance by Aunt Peniston.
Undeterred by such misfortunes, Lily fights to regain her place in high society by befriending Mr and Mrs Gormer. However, her enemy, the malicious Bertha Dorset, gradually communicates to them the "scandalous" personal background of Lily Bart, and, so, undermines the friendship which Lily had hoped would socially rehabilitate her. Only two friends remain for Lily: Gerty Farish (a cousin of Lawrence Selden) and Carry Fisher, who help her cope with the social ignominy of a degraded social-status, whilst continually advising Lily to marry as soon as reasonably possible.
Despite the efforts and advice of Gerty and Carry to help her overcome notoriety, Lily descends through the social strata of the high society of New York City. She obtains a job as personal secretary of Mrs. Hatch, who is a disreputable woman; and Lily resigns after Lawrence Selden returns to rescue her from complete infamy. Lily then finds a job in a milliner's shop; yet, unaccustomed to the rigors of working class manual labour, her rate of production is low and the quality of her workmanship is poor, and she is fired at the end of the New York social season when the demand for fashionable hats has ceased.
Meanwhile, Simon Rosedale, a Jewish suitor who earlier had proposed marriage to Lily, when she was higher in the social scale, returns to her life and tries to rescue her, but Lily is unwilling to meet his terms. Simon wants Lily to use love letters, which she bought from her servant, to confirm the occurrence of a long-ago love affair between Lawrence Selden and Bertha Dorset. For the sake of Selden's reputation, Lily does not act upon Rosedale's request, and secretly burns the love letters when she visits Selden, one last time.
In the event, Lily Bart receives a ten-thousand-dollar inheritance, from her Aunt Peniston, with which she repays Gus Trenor. Distraught by her misfortunes, Lily had begun regularly using a sleeping draught of chloral hydrate to escape the pain of poverty and social ostracism. One day, Lily takes an overdose of the sleeping draught and kills herself. Hours later, Lawrence Selden arrives to her quarters, to finally propose marriage, but finds Lily Bart dead; only then is he able to be close to her.
The social expectation of politeness, good manners, and the acting required to maintain a constant façade of enjoying one another's company dominate all of the parties and interactions between the members of the elite circles in The House of Mirth. Lily recognizes the difference between a conversation she has with Selden, where they are both real and sometimes less-than-flattering in the honesty of their responses, and the acting she does with Mrs. Trenor and the other socialites, where they focus solely on gossip and pretense and are constantly calculating in order to manipulate one another. The artificiality of the good manners of the "most civilized" characters in the novel demonstrates just how bad their manners actually are.
Lying, cheating, stealing, adultery, spreading rumors, and generally being hurtful and mean are common occurrences within this circle. Lily recognizes this, and at times she longs for the honesty and realness of her relationship with Selden. However, she isn't able to detach herself from her desire for wealth, which demands that she continue to play the same manipulative game as the other socialites in order to get what she wants.
Lily's relationship with money is obviously fraught with tension and drama, and she often describes the relationship in terms of freedom and slavery. When she has money and is able to pay her debts, she feels a sense of unparalleled freedom. But when the money is gone and her debts overwhelm her, she likens her situation to that of slavery—she is a slave to the whims and desires of others, a slave to the social demands of the upper-class circles, and a slave to her own inability to be happy without money. The idea of freedom and slavery also fits the different roles of the sexes. Percy Gryce, a wealthy, eccentric young bachelor, has large amounts of freedom, simply by virtue of his being a man. As a young woman, especially one without great wealth, Lily can never live the life of Selden or Gryce, and instead she must find a match that will ensure her protection and security. She will never have the freedom that the men have.