The heroine, Dorinda Oakley, is twenty when the book opens. Frustrated by the monotony of her life with her nervous Calvinist mother and her slow-witted but diligent father, she falls in love with a young doctor, Jason Greylock. Her dreams of joyful fulfillment are short-lived. Jason, by nature weak and unreliable, is forced into marriage with the daughter of a prosperous landowner. Dorinda, pregnant and disillusioned, flees to New York. She loses the baby in an accident but remains in the city for two years, trying to come to terms with life.
Her father’s illness calls her back to Virginia and to the land that will restore her self-esteem. With intelligent use of new farming techniques and unrelenting labor, Dorinda turns her parents’ worn-out acreage into a prosperous dairy farm.
As her fortunes rise, Jason’s fall. He drinks himself into oblivion and his wife, now mad, commits suicide. After many years, Dorinda achieves bittersweet revenge, first buying his bankrupt farm, then caring for him in his dying weeks. Yet she can never restore the joy he stole when he jilted her. Her marriage in middle age to a homely but kind widower is a relationship of companionship and shared labor, devoid of romance.
Glasgow’s theme is embodied in natural images throughout the book. Dorinda’s initial disillusionment is symbolized by broomsedge, the prolific weed that overruns potentially fertile farmland. The pine tree that her father watches from his deathbed comes to represent Dorinda’s endurance and her conviction that the land itself is the only source of fulfillment.
Glasgow’s world is a bleak but not a hopeless one. Though life destroys the weak-willed Jasons, those who, like Dorinda, grow beyond the romantic illusions of youth can find strength and integrity.
Bond, Tonette. “Pastoral Transformations in Barren Ground.” Mississippi Quarterly 32 (Fall, 1979): 565-576. Discusses how Glasgow shows Dorinda’s pastoral vision enabling her to re-create her internal and external landscapes. Relates Dorinda’s spiritual revitalization to that of the defeated South; both need imagination, energy, and innovation to reclaim the Arcadian ideal.
Donovan, Josephine. After the Fall: The Demeter-Persephone Myth in Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989. Donovan describes Glasgow’s use of the resurrection myth in the mother-daughter relationship in Barren Ground, which reflects a shift from a traditional Southern view of male supremacy to a woman-identified world, both for Dorinda and for the author, in which “green world”...
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