Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Barren Ground, Glasgow’s favorite among her novels and the most autobiographical of them, is the story of Dorinda Oakley, a woman who spends her life in the pursuit of happiness, only to discover that happiness comes through the rejection of human relationships. The book was written after Glasgow’s suicide attempt; it is significant that she sent her unfaithful fiancé a copy of the book, which concludes with Dorinda’s statement that she is happy to be finished with love.
Barren Ground is set in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where there are few aristocrats, and the chief distinction among men is their stewardship of their farms. James Ellgood, for example, is a fine stock farmer, and his family prospers accordingly. On the other hand, a doctor in the neighborhood has let his large farm go to ruin because he spends his time drinking instead of taking care of it. The case of Dorinda’s father is somewhat different: Although he is a hard worker, he is a poor white, raised in poverty and ignorance, fearful of change, and therefore unable and unwilling to improve his land. His children seem doomed to live as he lived—in misery and frustration. Seeing him as he is, Dorinda’s mother hates the man she married for love (marrying below herself), and she hopes that she can persuade Dorinda not to make the same mistake.
Unfortunately, Dorinda is aware that she will never again be so young and pretty as she is at twenty,...
(The entire section is 835 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Late one cold winter day, Dorinda Oakley walks the four miles between Pedlar’s Mill and her home at Old Farm. The land is bleak and desolate under a gray sky, and a few flakes of snow are falling. For almost a year, she worked in Nathan Pedlar’s store, taking the place of his consumptive wife. Her brisk walk carries her swiftly over the rutted roads toward her father’s unproductive farm and the dilapidated Oakley house. On the way, she passes Green Acres, the fertile farm of James Ellgood, and the run-down farm of Five Oaks, owned by dissolute old Doctor Greylock, whose son, Jason, gave up his medical studies to take over his father’s practice and to care for his drunken father.
As she walks, Dorinda thinks of young Jason Greylock, who overtakes her in his buggy before she reaches Old Farm. During the ride to her home, she remembers the comment of old Matthew Fairlamb, who told her that she ought to marry Jason. The young doctor is handsome and represents something different from Dorinda’s drab, struggling life. Her father and mother and her two brothers are unresponsive and bitter people. Mrs. Oakley suffers from headaches and tries to forget them in a ceaseless activity of work. At Old Farm, supper is followed by prayers, prayers by sleep.
Dorinda continues to see Jason. Taking the money she is saving to buy a cow, she orders a pretty dress and a new hat to wear to church on Easter Sunday. Her Easter finery, however, brings her no...
(The entire section is 1297 words.)