Monday, February 28, 2011

A "quaint modern American fatalism"

While reading Silas Lapham, one phrase stuck out to me and sort of followed me through to the end. Chapter 9 ends with a discussion between Mrs. Lapham and her daughter, Penelope.  They discuss Irene's relationship with Mr. Corey, who may or may not be seeking her hand in marriage.  In frustration, the two bemoan having ever met the Corey family, and wish that they had never become involved with the paint business.  Finally, the two recognize that the situation is out of their hands.

     "Well, we must stand it, anyway," said Mrs. Lapham, with the grim antique Yankee submission.
     "Oh yes, we've got to stand it," said Penelope, with the quaint modern American fatalism.

I found these two descriptions to be so compelling, the "grim antique Yankee submission", and moreso the "quaint modern American fatalism".  Submission and fatalism, both terms that imply a lack of control.  However, Mrs. Lapham serves as a representation of an older America, and her approach to these events is one of passivity and submission to dominance.  She recognizes the situation as being out of her control and pessimistically admits defeat.

However, Pen, who to me represents the hope for new money families to survive in upper crust society, approaches the situation with fatalism.  Fatalism, or the philosophy that events are out of one's control and left instead to fate, could certainly characterize the lower class.  However, rather than the expressly negative view offered by Mrs. Lapham's submission, fatalism suggests that while we are powerless, fate can decide both negative and positive paths for us.  While Mrs. Lapham sees the glass as half empty, Pen just sees that there is a glass, for better or for worse.

I feel like this submissive vs. fatalist philosophy fits in very well to much of what we've been discussing in class structure.  Is it possible to move up in class, or are we born to submit with our preexisting dominated social status?  Is social mobility even something that can be influenced by one's actions, or is it left up to fate?  We see that Silas's rise to economic power was by the good fortune of finding the paint well on his father's property.  While his rise also entailed a good deal of hard work, the initial push was from the chance discovery of a great fortune buried beneath a giant tree.  Could Silas have risen economically if pulling himself up by his bootstraps alone?  And once he rose economically, could he ever assimilate socially?  Or was he and the rest of the Lapham family fated to forever linger on the lower crust?

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