Ellen Glasgow Essay - Critical Essays

Ellen Glasgow American Literature Analysis

Throughout her life, Glasgow considered herself to be a searcher for truth, and it was this quest that motivated her writing. As she frequently pointed out, her novels began with ideas. Over a long gestation period, those ideas became embodied in character and scene and finally coalesced into a plot. Then the actual writing process would begin, and during that process, the world Glasgow was creating became more real to her than the actual world in which she lived. When each book was finished, she felt a sense of deprivation, almost a death; the only remedy was to begin another novel.

This summary of her creative process makes it clear that to Glasgow, fiction was indeed an imitation of reality; however, she was not interested in presenting a mere slice of life. Her works always had an intellectual basis. That fact accounts for the artistic failure of early works such as Phases of an Inferior Planet, in which characters do not achieve a real existence but merely illustrate ideas.

For example, the heroine of Phases of an Inferior Planet, Mariana Musin, is the daughter of a Presbyterian father and a Catholic mother, whose religious differences eventually destroy their love for each other. After she goes to New York to become an opera singer, Mariana meets, marries, and parts from a teacher, Anthony Algarcife, who later goes into the priesthood and becomes the most famous preacher in New York. Algarcife is noted for his brilliant essays in rebuttal to a series of antireligious articles, which he himself is actually writing. Despite the novel’s portrayal of romantic love, grinding poverty, the death of a baby, and final reunion, the characters never become real enough to inspire sympathy; they are pasteboard symbols of alienation, illustrating the evils of institutional religion.

By the time she wrote her third novel, The Voice of the People, Glasgow had learned to let her characters come alive and to suggest her ideas through those characters. From her own life, Glasgow could draw on very real conflicts, but she no longer protested shrilly; she was able to examine the ironies which were so evident in her culture. One of Glasgow’s major themes is her view of southern history as a conflict between two traditions, that of the pleasure-loving cavalier and that of the rigidly righteous but strong Calvinist.

In The Voice of the People and in The Deliverance, she shows how people of her mother’s aristocratic stock live upon lies, embracing an illusory past. In Vein of Iron, on the other hand, the heroine discovers that neither the past, nor even love, can get one through life—only strength of character can. In the South, Glasgow stresses, that strength came not from the cavaliers, who are far more appealing, but from the rigid and dour Scots-Irish Calvinists.

Another theme that pervades Glasgow’s work is the conflict between the Old South and the New South. In her Civil War novel, The Battle-Ground, Glasgow described the dying society, as well as the war which doomed it, realistically, not sentimentally. At the end of the book, the survivors seem to be relieved that they no longer are burdened by the past. The same conflict is treated comically in The Romantic Comedians, which follows the protagonist, a gentleman of the old school, from shock to shock as he moves forward in time into a world that he does not understand.

A third major theme of Glasgow’s work involves the conflict between the expectations for women, as the objects of male chivalry, and their need for independence. In her first two novels, women rebel by leaving the South for New York, where they pursue careers and live bohemian lives. In later books, however, women fight their battles on the South, on home territory. In The Battle-Ground, Betty Ambler has learned her own worth through hardship. When the man she loves returns from war, it is clear that he will never be able to imprison her again by referring to the code of chivalry.

Although Glasgow’s themes change little from work to work, her tone varies greatly from novel to novel. It is amazing, for example, that a work as grim as Barren Ground should have been followed by two comedies of manners, The Romantic Comedians and They Stooped to Folly, and then by a work that is only somewhat more serious, The Sheltered Life, which was followed by the near-tragedy of Vein of Iron. Immediately before she wrote Barren Ground, the founder of southern realism had even participated in the writing of a romance, but as her collaborator was Henry Anderson, her fiancé, that lapse may be understandable.

Throughout all of her work, whatever the tone, Glasgow is a careful plotter and scene builder, as well as an expert in revealing character through the spoken and the unspoken word. Her skill is illustrated in the initial scene of The Romantic Comedians, which takes place at a grave on Easter Sunday. At the beginning of the scene, the widower, Judge Gamaliel Bland Honeywell, is moaning a sentimental formula for his grief, while vainly attempting to remember his wife’s face. At the end of the scene, he leaves the cemetery, almost simultaneously musing about his dislike of old women and contemplating the virtues of the old social system, which women of his generation support. It is spring.

At the end of the book, after the judge has very nearly died as a result of his disastrous marriage to a young girl, Glasgow repeats the elements of that first scene—the judge’s conservatism, his antipathy to old women of his own age, his consciousness of spring, and finally, his response to a young woman. Even though Glasgow stressed the intellectual content of her works, this level of writing illustrates the fact that she had worked hard to become a superb craftswoman. From her third novel on, her readers expected artistry from Glasgow as well as challenging ideas.

Barren Ground

First published: 1925

Type of work: Novel

For thirty years, Dorinda Oakley vainly seeks happiness through human love but finally discovers contentment in her relationship with the land.

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, and despite her mother’s warnings, she believes that she must use her power to win a husband. The young man she chooses to charm is the doctor’s son, who, beneath his sophisticated exterior, is actually as weak as his father. After proposing to Dorinda, he leaves town; when he returns, he has been persuaded to marry someone else. The betrayal devastates Dorinda. She turns against the God who was her mother’s consolation, and she turns against men. From that time on, she is barren ground, incapable of response. Although in her preface, Glasgow praises Dorinda as a character who has learned to live without hope or joy—merely to endure life—the reader is likely to find...

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