11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2006
The second novel in an unfinished trilogy (THE OCTOPUS was the initial volume), it's the story of how a man's ruthless business ambitions drive a wedge between himself and the love of his wife. Curtis Jadwin speculates in the Chicago wheat market; his successes propel him into wanting to "corner the market," which he proceeds to do. In the wake of all that "desire of the moth for the star," as Shelley put it, is the detritus of ruined men committing suicide, failed health, and Jadwin's own crumbling marriage due to neglect. Indeed, his wife Laura almost succumbs to the attentions of another man, Sheldon Corthell, but is brought back to her husband's side when he becomes ill. The scenes with Laura are the least successful because they are the most melodramatic. Norris felt the need, of course, to put things on an even keel again before the story's close; thus Jadwin loses all his money on a poor gamble regarding a banner wheat harvest that sends the market reeling, which brings on his illness and the loyal Laura. All's well that ends well, as the couple head West to start a new, though financially poorer, life (in 1903 it was still possible to do that). Norris is at his best in the wheeling and dealing that occurs in the Chicago exchange: the writing there is exciting and crisp. This tale of greed vs. marital love is a good one, though not as powerful as THE OCTOPUS.
22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on September 17, 2001
The Pit is a story about the Chicago Wheat market during the early 1900's. Norris writes a historical / romance book in which Laura Dearborn finds herself in Chicago from Boston. Almost immediately, she is beset by a variety of suitors. However, she is most taken by Curtis Jadwin, a sophisticated businessman who is influential on the Chicago Board of Trade.
After marrying Laura, the conservative speculator, after making a nice profit on the wheat market, becomes obsessive over controlling it. As the story unfolds, his wealth grows in a short period of time and for a while he captures the market. Ultimately, though, the market corrects itself and he must save his fortune as well as his wife, Laura, whose love begins to flee from lack of attention from Jadwin.
I found this book very slow at the beginning. However, once the market traps Jadwin, the book becomes exciting and the pages fly by. Laura is a realistic character, although I didn't have a lot of sympathy for her - she come off rather spoiled and hapless. Norris's point about the addictiveness of speculating on wheat futures and the power that it has over the rest of the world is evident. A solid book and worth reading by those who like that period of time or are interested in Chicago's history.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 22, 2012
"The Pit: A Story of Chicago" was the second novel in Frank Norris's projected trilogy "The Epic of the Wheat", "The Octopus" being the first. In the event, however, Norris died suddenly in October 1902 leaving the third installment, provisionally titled "The Wolf", unwritten.
"The Pit" is in many ways a very different book from its predecessor. It is much shorter, being only just over half the length of "The Octopus". Whereas "The Octopus" was mostly rural in its setting, "The Pit" is entirely urban, with the whole of the action taking place in Chicago. "The Octopus" did not have a single protagonist, with several characters, all male, taking the leading role at different stages of the book. "The Pit", by contrast, concentrates on the fortunes of a single married couple, the wealthy businessman Curtis Jadwin and his wife Laura. What the two novels have in common, apart from the theme of wheat, is Norris's socialist world view and his critical attitude towards what he saw as capitalist greed.
In "The Octopus", capitalism is represented by the powerful railroad company which ruthlessly uses its monopoly on transport to exploit the Californian wheat growers. In "The Pit" Norris's target is the commodity dealers at the Chicago Board of Trade, who can make or lose immense fortunes by speculating on the price of wheat and other commodities. The title "The Pit" refers to the trading floor of the Board of Trade, but in biblical language it can also be a synonym for Hell or the grave, as in Psalm 88. ("I am counted with them that go down into the Pit"). The dealers generally have little or no regard to the hardship which they inflict on others. The "Bears", who manipulate the market by artificially depressing the price of wheat, inflict hardship on American farmers. The "Bulls", who manipulate the market by artificially inflating the price, inflict hardship on the poor in those European countries which depend upon imports of American wheat; on the commodity exchange, unlike the stock market, a "bull market" is not necessarily a sign of economic prosperity. (If Norris is to be believed, Americans themselves at this period consumed more potatoes than bread).
Jadwin has initially made his fortune in property, but soon, like many other wealthy men in Chicago, becomes involved with wheat speculation, which he sees as a quick and easy way to make money. He does so not because he is in need of money- his property business already brings him enough income to allow him to live in considerable luxury- but because he enjoys the intellectual challenge of making money for its own sake and because he enjoys the sense of power which being a successful speculator allows him. The note on the back of this edition describes Laura as his "brutally abused" wife, a description which strikes me as inaccurate. Jadwin is not guilty of physical violence towards Laura, or even deliberate emotional cruelty. His one great fault as a husband is that he becomes so obsessed with speculating that he neglects everything else, even his beautiful young wife.
In "The Octopus" Norris's writing shows the influence of Emile Zola, but in "The Pit" it also shows the influence of another French writer, Flaubert, especially in the treatment of Laura Jadwin, who shares many traits with the heroine of "Madame Bovary". Like Emma Bovary, Laura is a born romantic, with a very romanticised view of love, and like Emma can also be impulsive and fickle. (Unlike Emma, however, she is never physically unfaithful to her husband, although she is sorely tempted). Much of the early part of the novel deals with the courtship of Jadwin and Laura, who also has two other suitors for her hand. One of these, Landry Court who eventually marries Laura's sister Page, is a fairly minor character, but the other, a young artist named Sheldon Corthell, plays a more important role. In many ways Corthell would seem to be the ideal soul-mate for Laura, with whom he is deeply in love, as the two have many interests in common, and yet he fails to win her because, paradoxically, the two are so similar. Laura is not looking for a soul-mate but rather for a man who is the exact opposite of herself, someone strong and forceful whom she can look up to and admire. She has little interest in business itself, but sees in the dynamic businessman Jadwin the strong man whom she has been seeking, even though she is unsure whether she loves him. The opposition of commerce (represented by Jadwin) and of art (represented by Corthell) is one of the major themes of the book, with the former being seen as something "masculine" and the latter as something "feminine".
Norris is sometimes described as a "naturalist" writer, but "The Pit" is not a "naturalist" novel, if by that term is meant a novel which deals with the darker side of human life, poverty, vice and crime. All the main characters are from the wealthy or well-to-do classes, and their actions, although often immoral, never stray into the criminal. As Professor Joseph McElrath points out in his introduction, Norris did not, unlike some naturalist writers, take a purely deterministic view of human nature. Rather, his is a moral universe where his characters have moral choices open to them. It is this idea of moral choice which unites the two sides of the novel, the public and the private, into a coherent whole. The two are linked by the theme of selfishness; Jadwin is driven by ruthless self-interest both in pursuit of his business aims and in his treatment of Laura (although it must be admitted that she can on occasions be just as self-centred as her husband). The book's irony is that Jadwin's ruthlessness proves to be his undoing as he finds himself unable to control the economic forces he has set in motion; believing that he can corner the wheat market, he ultimately finds that the wheat has cornered him.
I preferred "The Pit" to "The Octopus", which contains some powerful writing but suffers from a less coherent structure and an overly optimistic ending. Certainly, in some respects, especially its attitude towards the role of women in society, "The Pit" is very much a novel of its time. In other respects, however, it has a great deal of relevance to modern society. Men like Curtis Jadwin are as much a part of the capitalist system today as they were a hundred years ago; he has much in common with the villain of a twenty-first century novel, John Veals in Sebastian Faulks's "A Week in December". Apart from its analysis of greed, the book also contains a fine analysis of a failing marriage, worthy in this respect to rank alongside the likes of "Madame Bovary" and "Anna Karenina".
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 17, 2008
`The Pit' is a story of speculation on the price of wheat in the Chicago wheat exchange (the `Pit') at a moment when agriculture was the main industry in the world.
As Frank Norris tells us: speculation `is a matter of life and death', not for the speculators (`the fellows in the Pit don't care about the grain'), but for the farmers and the world population, because the speculators `say just how much the peasant shall pay for his loaf of bread. If he can't pay the price, he simply starves.'
The price is also vital for the world economy: `Because of some sudden eddy spinning outward in the middle of the Pit's turmoil, a dozen bourses of continental Europe clamored with panic, a dozen Old-World banks trembled.'
An `Unknown Bull' succeeds in cornering the wheat market sending the price to dizzying heights. But his greed is also his fall. The high prices attract farmers all over the world to grow a bumper crop: `It was as if the Wheat, Nourisher of the Nations, as it rolled gigantic and majestic in a vast flood from West to East, here, like a Niagara, finding its flow impeded, burst suddenly into the appalling fury of the Maëlstrom.'
The rough and tumble of the `Pit' is paralleled by a story about an innocent maiden. She also chooses the speculator, `always cruel, selfish, pitiless, the fighter, rigorous, panoplied in the harness of the warrior', instead of the artist `and his cult of the beautiful, soft of hand and speech, refined, sensitive and temperamental.'
This novel, whose subject is still very topical, is sometimes not without a certain sentimentality and theatricality. But it should not be missed.
on March 14, 2014
The Pit is the second novel in Frank Norris’s Epic of the Wheat, an unfinished trilogy meant to portray the production, distribution, and consumption of a crop of American wheat. Norris only lived long enough to complete the first two novels in the trilogy but those two novels represent an important contribution to the effort to create an indigenous American Literature with subject matter, themes, and symbols drawn from American life.
The subtitle of this novel is ‘A Story of Chicago’ and it is at its finest in its depiction of that city around the time of the turn of the century. Detailed descriptions of the downtown financial district, opera at the Auditorium Building, artists’ studios, Lincoln Park, the busy river, the grain elevators and the railyards all are worked into the story of Curtis Jadwin, a real estate mogul who corners wheat by essentially buying up almost an entire crop in the trading pit of the Board of Trade, driving the price of wheat ever higher. The scenes of trading described in the novel, of brokers buying and selling futures contracts for bushels of wheat as a crowd looks on from the visitors’ gallery, are a truly vivid depiction of financial operations, something rarely portrayed in literature.
Jadwin’s story is one of building a great fortune almost overnight. It’s a kind of proto-American Dream tale, but his obsession with speculation and finance lead him to neglect his wife Laura, the other main character in this story. Her personality is split between her love for her husband and her natural sympathies toward a more artistic and aesthetic sense of life which is brought out in her relationship with the artist Sheldon Corthell. While her husband provides a cavernous home for her, complete with an art gallery and organ, there’s something inside her that isn’t satisfied and she’s stifled and miserable in her gilded cage.
But the most important character in the novel is wheat, the amber waves of grain that provide a livelihood to farmers and farming towns across so much of America and the crop that is the object of much of the trading in Chicago’s Board of Trade Building, though it only appears there in the form of small pouches of sample wheat that are scattered to pigeons waiting nearby after it has been inspected for quality. Norris spends pages characterizing the wheat as a natural force similar to a hurricane or earthquake that just is and cannot be resisted or avoided. It’s a tremendous allegorical symbol combining natural and man-made elements. And the theater in which all this wheat is bought and sold is the Board of Trade Building, “black, monolithic, crouching on its foundations like a monstrous sphinx with blind eyes, silent, grave,” a large temple devoted to trading the crop used by Norris to symbolize the unfeeling impersonal economic forces which were assuming ever greater power in American life at the time this novel was published.
Ultimately the wheat carries on. Beginning as a crop and the livelihood of farmers in The Octopus, here it is the object of speculation and finance by a businessman with the hubris to think that he could control it, if only briefly. The final volume of Norris’s trilogy was meant to show the consumption of American wheat in Europe and it would have bracketed Norris’s project as a work on the subject of globalisation, the economic links that exist around the world connecting diverse populations in a worldwide system of capital explored via the wheat trade.
At the conclusion both Jadwin and his wife Laura find redemption in loss and like many characters in American literature before and since they head west for a different life. But this novel is a dynamic portrait of the Chicago they leave, a rising city growing out of its midwestern origins to assume worldwide importance, busy with trade and industry but also stopping to go to the opera and appreciate the fine arts. And it’s that fully realized setting which makes this great novel come to life as an exciting American story.
Norris, who died suddenly the year before this book actually hit the reading public, never had a chance to explain what he was up to, and while critics hailed it at the time, it has come to be seen as a weaker Norris.
Many of the ideas seen in The Octopus (first of the unfinished trilogy) are here. There's the idea of business vs. art, represented in the world by two different types of men. That idea is worked out through the romantic tale of the female protagonist, who must repeatedly decide between two representative samplings.
There's the notion of love's transformative power, particularly as that power awakens a human sense of selflessness. Laura does not just struggle with her choice of man, but with the notion of what role she wants to play herself-- does she want to be someone's partner and helpmate, or does she want to be an object of adoration?
Most importantly, Norris continues to try to depict the massive powers of capitalism without actually demonizing them. Several reviewers here have referred to the male protagonist being overcome by greed, but I think that's an oversimplification. Norris could write about greed; he did so in McTeague to great effect. But in in both the Octopus and here, he talks about men and commerce in the grip of a greater power. Both the railroad chief in The Octopus and Jadwin in The Pit talk about the wheat demanding its own fate regardless of the wishes of men. Jadwin is written as realizing ultimately that he did not corner the wheat, but that the wheat cornered itself.
And those economic powers, while vast and overpowering, have no moral element. In The Pit, Norris carefully notes that the market's upheaval is impoverishing the poor in Europe even as it makes it possible for farmers to pay off their mortgages and financial security.
It's shooting for these deeper observations that give The Pit what punch it has. The plot itself is nothing special-- businessman becomes obsessed with business ultimately threatening his health and his marriage-- and this allowed The Pit to be read as one more popular romance novel. It starts slow. Reallllllly slow, focused almost entirely on the social adventures of Laura.
And for whatever reason, it ends much softer than McTeague or The Octopus, both of which subject their characters to all brand of torture and humiliation before killing them off. In comparison to most naturalist novels of the period, The Pit ends on a positively Disneyan happy note.
The Pit has not always been available, so it's great for Norris scholars that it's back on the shelves. For completist fans of an American author who died much too soon, it is a treat to read. But if you are looking to introduce yourself to Norris, don't start here. McTeague and The Octopus are both clearer, more focused, more original, and more powerful works.
on July 17, 2009
Except for the language and gender roles, which date this book from its publication in 1902, The Pit could have been written about any form of speculation to which greedy executives have succumbed. The Pit happens to be about the speculation in wheat at the turn of the last century, which is appropriate given the agrarian nature of the American economy at that time. However, you could exchange any number of commodities for wheat in this story - oil, mortgages, stocks, dot-coms, and you would see the very timely similarities.
Curtis Ladwin is a man who already has more money than he could ever use or need, but he's addicted to the art of the deal, and thrill of thinking two steps ahead of his competitors. To the detriment of his health, his family and his finances, he continues to chase long after the tide has turned. "I haven't cornered the wheat. The wheat has cornered me."
Frank Norris is one of my favorite novelists from this time period because his stories are still amazingly readable and relevant. Some authors from the early 1900s are almost impossible to read now, so ridden are their books with linguistic acrobatics. Aside from some melodramatic histrionics in the domestic scenes, the language that Norris uses is remarkably plain-spoken and contemporary in feel.
I've only reduced the book from five stars to four because I believe it is melodramatic in the domestic scenes. I understand that these over-the-top dramatics are commonplace in novels from this period, but I have seen domestic scenes of this type written better, and I know that Frank Norris was capable of a lighter touch.
9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on August 11, 1999
This story of the Chicago commodities is quite shocking. The central characters, the Jadwins, let greed and self pity ruin their once happy marriage. The amount of money that these characters waste and then lose is mind blowing. It shows that greed has always been the driving force in our American economy.
on March 2, 2015
This is what the public domain reprint should be. Properly sized, wonderful perfect binding and lovely typeface.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2013
This is a classic novel about ego, business and financial speculation. Its about the rise of a grain trader in Chicago who gradually gets "bigger" in the business until he finally attempts to "corner" the market. The best part about the novel is how timeless it is. The observations about the practicalities of fighting the market, the realities of "business journalism", the mentality which allows these people to be unaware of the consequences of their actions and the whole lifestyle of those involved are still as true today as they were when the book was written.
Norris tells the story in an evenhanded way and presents an accurate picture of the major characters rather than using them as political sockpuppets. As he did with the farmers in "the Octopus", he gives the characters a complexity in that they can be both sympathetic victims and exploiters. One of the high points for me is how he shows the bubble world of the traders while at the same time, showing the effects their actions are having in the real world and how divorced they are from the consquences of their actions.
The book is also the story of a relationship and a marriage. That story is often interesting in and of itself. But at times it seems like "filler" in what would have otherwise been a small book.
The best part of the book is the final confrontation in "the pit". Its a dramatic ending worthy of the story and makes the very clear point that ultimately the market cannot be controlled by any individual for long.