Review: In ‘The Glass Hotel,’ women deserve more agency

A deep dive into Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel

The character of Vincent lacks agency in The Glass Hotel. 
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While it’s true random events often have the power to drastically change the course of our lives, The Glass Hotel, a Canadian novel by Emily St. John Mandel, undermines the agency women have in their romantic relationships.

At the heart of the book is a Ponzi scheme executed by the ultra-wealthy Johnathan Alkaitis. The story follows the lives of people who were implicated.

The diverse profile of characters includes Vincent, Alkaitis’s young, pretend trophy wife; naïve victims who lost their life savings in the Ponzi scheme; and Alkaitis’s collaborators.

Vincent is working in a bar at the Caiette, a luxurious hotel on Vancouver Island, when she meets Alkaitis. This random interaction transports her from a world where she has to work as a bartender to get by into a world where she has more money than she could imagine. But this supposed financial freedom comes at the cost of her independence; she must accept being paraded around as a status symbol for her pretend husband. 

Vincent seems to be enchanted by Alkaitis’s money. She submits to him due to the blissful life he can provide for her. Observing how the ultra-rich have mansions around the world and weak national ties to their homelands, Vincent remarks that “money is its own country.”

Overnight, she enters another social class where she lives a life of bliss and doesn’t have to make her own decisions—yet making your own decisions, being autonomous and carving out one’s own life can be important markers of personal identity and achievement. Under the allure of wealth, Vincent sacrifices these markers and loses herself in the process.

Throughout the novel, Vincent is a social chameleon who can incorporate herself seamlessly into the lives of those she surrounds herself with. Her social dexterity illustrates her intelligence, yet despite her competence, Vincent’s character lacks any agency.

Importantly, Vincent’s helplessness in her relationship with Alkaitis is not the same helplessness as Alkitis’s unknowing collaborators in the Ponzi scheme, nor the investors who lose their life savings because of it. Although Mandel depicts these characters as equally helpless in determining the course of their lives, their situations are completely different.

When Alkaitis’ collaborators joined the Ponzi scheme, it was not an intentional decision. Rather, it was a slippery slope with one fraudulent transaction here and there until they realized he’d roped them into his illegal activity.

While they knew what they were doing was wrong, they did not know the gravity of their actions until it was too late: “It’s possible to both know and not know something,” the narrator reasons.

The Glass Hotel calls to mind the famous Milgram experiment of 1963, an American psychological study. Obedience to authority figures was studied in detail following WWII when Nazi soldiers who were under orders of their superiors were being held accountable for their actions.

In the Milgram experiment, participants believe they are shocking someone in another room, and keep increasing the voltage under the orders of a scientist despite the cries of pain from the perceived victim. The experiment confirmed that people will often obey authority figures even when they know what they’re doing is wrong, especially if the severity of their crimes increases gradually.

The experiment shocked Americans because it proved they could be just as complicit to crimes against humanity as the German “Other.”

St. John Mandel’s description of Alkaitis’s collaborators accurately captures how people will comply with the outrageous demands of authority figures. However, Mandel generalizes this phenomenon to all types of decisions and relationships, like Vincent’s romantic relationship with Alkaitis, a role where she should exhibit more agency.

Mandel discusses the helplessness of those who unknowingly invested in a Ponzi scheme and lost their life earnings. These individuals could not have foreseen the consequences of their investing, and the story follows how many of them adapted to life after being caught.

Troublingly, Vincent is lumped into the same type of helplessness as these individuals. The text suggests her future could not be foreseen and planned for when in reality, she willingly subjected herself to Alkaitis and could have taken action to redirect the course of her life.

The bottom line is that women are not under the authority of men and are not always helpless in their relationships. Women are not so simpleminded that they can be entranced by money and leave behind their agency. Being in a romantic relationship is not the same thing as being robbed by a fraudulent corporate scheme or tricked into a felony where one’s livelihood is at stake.

Vincent should not be rendered helpless by being in a relationship with a man who has money. She is an intelligent woman who should be able to hold her own and make her own decisions.

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