In The Way We Live Now business, politics, social interaction, and literature come under the satirist's intense scrutiny. Modern readers may recognize many underlying similarities between Trollope's world and their own. The text exposes human frailties that seem universal. For this reason the work does not immediately alienate those readers who lack an extensive understanding of the Victorian era, but it would be a mistake, however, to ignore the cultural gap that separates the ninteenth century from the present day. Only by understanding the society that Trollope criticizes can a reader fully appreciate the subtleties of the text. One method of coming to this kind of understanding involves examining the work of other Victorian satirists. The humorous magazine Punch deals with many of the issues that concern Trollope. Its cartoons and caricatures provide considerable insight into his world.
"The Ruling Passion," for instance, could serve as an illustration to The Way We Live Now: The cartoon exposes the manner in which upper class Victorians turned parties and gatherings into games where social advancement became the ultimate prize. The cartoon ridicules Mr. Snobley for attempting to criticize his foreign guest. While the guest's pride comes from some sort of genuine accomplishment, Snobley's hubris roots itself in the fact that he can bring a Lord into his home. By pointng this fact out Lord Fitzrad humorously deflates Snobley's ego. In doing so he also exposes his own sense of self-importance and presents himself to the reader as a clever boor who knows too well his position in society. Between the two men there exists a clear understanding that the Lord performs Snobley a great service simply by dining with him. In the same manner, the "distinguished foreign guest" functions as a prop or featured attraction to draw others to Snobley's party. This cartoon portrays the British upper class as a frivolous and petty community, more interested in social standing than genuine accomplishment or human interaction. [For another discussion of this cartoon.]
Melmotte's dinner party in The Way We Live Now makes the same point in a remarkably similar manner. The Emperor of China becomes the featured attraction that brings important members of British society into Melmotte's home. [For another discussion of this episode.]The aristocracy crave tickets to the event because the prestige associated with dining in the presence of royalty would increase their social standing. At the same time, Melmotte seeks to improve his standing by bringing all of these individuals together under his roof. Clearly the party has nothing to do with socializing. As Melmotte loses his reputation the event suddenly becomes déclassé, and many of the guests fail to turn up. A modern reader might wonder why such a shrewd business man would throw away money on such an event. Punch reveals that Melmotte's actions typify the behavior of a Victorian hoping to improve his class rank. Trollope, in other words, mocks an entire section of British society in this scene, not just one individual.
The corruption and deceit that played a part in Victorian social life also marked the era's business dealings. "Missing the Point" shows how satirists perceived the important men of the day. Rather than attempting to deal with his financial creditors on an honest or open level, the "Innocent Client" of the cartoon seeks simply to avoid his obligations. Mr. Melmotte feels much the same way about his own business associates. Throughout the novel he refuses to meet with those individuals who have lent him money. When confrontation proves absolutely necessary Melmotte lies, bullies and sidesteps the issue of money. He uses his reputation as a great financier to avoid telling his clients the truth. The book explicitly states that he has amassed his fortune by cheating:
Fraud and dishonesty had been the very principle of his life . . . Not to cheat, not to be a scoundrel, not to live more luxuriously than others by cheating more brilliantly, was a condition of things to which his mind had never turned itself.
Both Trollope and the author of this comic show how some Victorian businessmen carried on their lives without even considering the possibility of facing up to their obligations. Normal conventions of responsibility or morality played no part in their dealings with other individuals.
Last modified 1998