In many texts published in the fin-de-siecle, there are extreme class differences that effect various relationships in both forms of platonic love and romantic love. Within these relationships, it seems as though there are plenty of fantastical elements that come into play in order to reconcile these differences. Relationships in various stories need a specific element of fantasy to provide a bridge between relationships. Using examples from James, Chesnutt, Jewett, Norris, Wilde and Whitman, it can be seen that class differences can affect relationships to the point where fantasy is needed to resolve these issues.
In the Cage by Henry James is a prime example of explicit class differences and the effects it can have on relationships. Within the novella, there are many different relationships that have substantial class differences—Mrs. Jordan and her husband; the telegraphist and Captain Everard/the telegraphist and Mr. Mudge. Specifically, the telegraphist’s close friend Mrs. Jordan works as an arranger of flowers for the higher class, and eventually falls in love with a rich man.
When discussing their futures together, Mrs. Jordan admits that she might not necessarily love the man whom she is to marry but, “it has led to my not starving! ” (James, 379). Her class difference in her relationship is used to her benefit, as she is looking to marriage as a means of survival. Being of lower class has brought Mrs. Jordan to marrying for reasons other than love, and only as a way to keep food on the table. This act is one way of reconciling the differences of class… simply by marrying into a higher one than the one she was in.
Similar to using a marriage to survive, the telegraphist uses elements of fantasy to change her uperficial relationships she makes at her job at the Post Office. By working in a part of town that is generally filled with upper class citizens, the telegraphist is exposed to life outside of her own class through the telegrams she receives and sends for customers. She spends her time at work reading through telegrams and messages that customers have sent and comes up with her own stories regarding those messages. One specific example the story gives, is the tragic love story of Captain Everard and Lady Bradeen.
The story doesn’t seem to ever fully explain the actual story between the Captain and Lady Bradeen, and we are left to wonder what actually happened and what was in the imagination of the main character. This ability to fantasize about different relationships in classes helps her feel more content in her relationship with Mr. Mudge. Her imagining of this tragic love story is comparable to reasons why couples cheat in relationships—they aren’t getting a certain desire out of the relationship. With some, it can be physical love and lead to a sexual affair, or others it can be an emotional affair.
For the telegraphist, her dramatization of the letters and obsession with the people she encounters lead her into fulfilling this exhilaration she isn’t getting with Mr. Mudge. Charles Chesnutt’s, Po’ Sandy shows how relationships can function differently in distinctive classes. The story gives two suitable examples in the relationships between John and Annie versus Sandy and Tenie. The narrator, John, expresses plenty of opportunities to show that he might not have married his wife strictly for love purposes.
It seems as though he only does certain things for his wife in order to placate her, rather than because he actually loves her. At the end of the story, John gives the impression of irritation with his wife when she wishes to not use the wood from the school house because believes in the fantasy of the story told by Julius with all of its supernatural elements by saying, “you wouldn’t for a moment allow yourself, Treplied with some asperity, ‘to be influenced by that absurdly impossible yarn which Julius was spinning today? “” (Chesnutt, 53).
His tone with her illustrates extreme distaste for his wife’s suggestion of finding different wood, even though he eventually abides her wish and finds different wood to build the kitchen. Comparing their seemingly unloving relationship to Sandy and Tenie in Julius’ story, class can make a difference in whether or not you have a loving relationship. After a very short time period of being together, Sandy and Tenie are split up between two different households and Julius explains, “[Sandy] wouldn”a’ mine comin’ ten er fifteen mile at night ter see Tenie”.
Even though the slave couple was only together for a brief time and possibly were only brought together to procreate more slaves for the plantation, this couple chose to make the best of the situation and be as loving as they could toward each other. The way these couples differ is that even though they both might not have gotten married for reasons of love, it is possible that their class differences are major factors into why they choose to make the best of the situation, like Sandy and Tenie, or dread the relationship, like John and Annie.
Similar to the telegraphist finding other means for happiness, John and Annie are in a higher class which gives alternate options to make themselves happy if they aren’t getting what they need from a relationship (like Annie’s new kitchen), whereas the lower class makes the most of the situation and uses the happiness from love to keep their relationships intact. In a time period where class differences are so distinct, it is especially important for characters—possibly real people, too—to come up with ways to reconcile these differences in various relationships.
Whether they fantasize about new relationships or movements in class, like the telegraphist, or listen and invest their imaginations in stories, these variances are noted throughout many texts in the fin-de-siecle. Furthering the idea of a necessary approach to reconcile differences through fantasy is Martha’s Lady by Sarah Orne Jewett. This story contains two women that could potentially have had a closer relationship had they not been from two distinct classes. Martha, a maid, and Helena, a cousin of Miss Harriet, the woman that Martha works for.
Helena comes to visit the home for a period of time and in that short amount of time, an oddly intimate relationship forms between the two women, even though they are in two separate classes. At the beginning of Helena’s visit, Harriet is discussing the problems that she has had with Martha and Helena defends her by saying, “”Oh, Martha will learn fast enough because she cares so much,’ said the visitor eagerly. ‘I think she is a dear good girl. I do hope that she will never go away. I think she does things better every day, cousin Harriet,’ added Helena pleadingly, with all her young heart” (Jewett, 249).
Martha overhears this comment made and thus begins to have deeper feelings for Helena that she was unaware of. From that point on, Martha works as hard as she possibly can to impress Helena and the two form a closer bond. Eventually, Helena leaves for a trip to Europe and Martha is absolutely devastated, although she puts all her efforts into working hard to please Helena, even when she isn’t actually there. Some years later, Harriet gets news of Helena’s new fiancee and their plans to get married and Martha is shocked.
While Helena leaves for a long period of time, she still remembers her friend as she invites Martha to the wedding. Although they are close friends that don’t spend much of their life together, it is very possible that this outcome would have been different if they were from the same class to begin with. While homosexual relationships weren’t accepted during the time, it is plausible that there would have been more of a chance for any type of relationship between them if their classes weren’t so segregated.
Looking at another text penned in this time period, Frank Norris’ McTeague has many relationships between characters of similar classes, although these relationships tend to not work out very well, even when in the same class. For instance, Maria and Zerkow have a very odd relationship. It is noted throughout the beginning of the book that Maria has a stereotypical job of a maid, and Zerkow is a Polish/jew that is conservative and even greedy with his money at times.
Ultimately these two end up marrying for reasons not distinctly mentioned in the book. A promising reason for this union could be Zerkow’s greediness. The fact that he is one of the few people to believe Maria’s tale about her ancestor’s gold plates she was to inherit one day shows this because Zerkow very well could have married Maria simply for this fact that he might come into more wealth in the future if he were to marry her if these plates are the real deal.
As it turns out, Maria comes out of labor to a stillborn baby with amnesia and cannot remember anything about gold plates from South America. This amnesia leads to her death because Zerkow murders her in anger after finding out that the plates were never real in the first place. His fantasy of possibly becoming rich off of these presumed plates is fully destroyed and Zerkow cannot accept this reality of being married to a woman that cannot bring him into a higher class as he originally hoped.