Ellen Glasgow Short Fiction Analysis
Ellen Glasgow’s most frequently quoted observation is that “What the South most needs is blood and irony.” She revolted against the affectedness, Romanticism, and excessive picturesqueness of much nineteenth and early twentieth century southern literature, and set out to produce a more realistic kind of fiction. She emphasized the wastage of life and of human energy which results from prejudice, illusion, impracticality, and a hostile environment; several of her most effective characters portray the frustration which comes from such wastage. Glasgow glorified strength, fortitude, energy, and a sense of duty. In fact, her characters are usually defined in terms of strength or weakness, rather than along the more conventional lines of good and evil.
Although Glasgow did introduce an element of realism into southern literature, she failed to accomplish her objectives fully. She remained a rather genteel southern lady whose attempt to depict the truth of the human situation was hampered by the limited range of her own experiences—she was shocked and horrified at the subject matter described by later southern realists, notably William Faulkner. Further, Glasgow seldom used a personal narrator, preferring an omniscient viewpoint. She often abused the technique, however, by inserting didactic or moralizing editorial observations into her fiction. As a result, much of her work tends to be talky and lacks the immediacy and impact of some other realistic fiction. Glasgow never entirely lost a sense of Romanticism or even sentimentality, and although those qualities do appear, she did not associate them with her own writing.
Although Glasgow did not handle realistic materials as convincingly as some other writers have done, she did contribute to the growth of realism by introducing into southern literature a number of topics which had previously been glossed over. Some of these were suggested by her reading; some stemmed from her rebellion against her father’s inflexible religion; and some were the product of her frustration with the weakness and ineffectuality of the southern aristocracy, of which she was a member through her mother’s family. These comparatively new themes included determinism, social selection, the influence of heredity and environment, positive and negative energy, sexuality, feminism, industrialism, and criticism of the southern class system.
Most of Glasgow’s twelve short stories, eleven of which were written before 1925, are adequate but not exceptional. She tended toward a rather diffuse style of writing and found it difficult to confine herself to the limitations of the short-story form. Although Glasgow never deliberately produced inferior work, she evidently wrote at least five of the short stories primarily for the sake of the high fees which magazines would pay for short fiction. Glasgow’s short stories tend to focus on moral themes, particularly those which relate to male-female relationships, and these moral themes are not by any means confined to the issue of sexual morality. Glasgow was extremely concerned about the social and personal injustices which occurred because the “double standard” allowed men to behave differently than women.
Glasgow’s best-known story, “The Difference,” is a scathing contrast between male and female attitudes toward love and marriage. The protagonist of the story, Margaret Fleming, is horrified when she discovers that her husband has been seeing another woman. Margaret learns about the affair from the mistress, Rose Morrison, who has written to Margaret asking her to give up her husband so that he might find happiness with Rose. Margaret goes to visit Rose, who is living in a villa belonging to George Fleming. Rose assures Margaret that she and George are very much in love, and that she understands George and can offer him far more excitement and satisfaction than Margaret can. Margaret, whose pale, grave beauty is beginning to fade, feels that George must have been attracted by the self-confident good looks of the red-haired Rose. She also wonders whether Rose’s uninhibited sexuality is more alluring than her own well-bred reserve. She concludes that George must truly love Rose if he is willing to sacrifice his wife, and she resolves to give him his freedom, even if it costs her own happiness.
Margaret approaches George with the intention of telling him that, although she herself might have been capable of romance and adventure if he had only called forth those qualities in her, she is willing to step out of his life so that he can fulfill the burning love he feels for Rose. This love, she feels, is the only justification for his behavior and the only reason she will forgive him. When Margaret informs George that she has seen Rose, however, and that Rose has asked her to give up George, he stands with his mouth open in amazement. He tells Margaret that he has no intention of leaving her for Rose, and that he thinks of Rose as he thinks of golf—“ just a sort of—well, sort of—recreation.” He then considers the subject closed and becomes restless for his supper. He cannot, in any case, see that Rose has anything whatever to do with Margaret. Remembering Rose’s passion, and knowing the depth of her own responses, Margaret feels disillusioned and empty. She recognizes the truth of a remark which a friend had made earlier in the day: “Women love with their imagination and men with their senses.” To a woman, love is “a thing in itself, a kind of abstract power like religion”; but to a man, “it is simply the way he feels.”
“The Difference” illustrates both Glasgow’s feminism and her lingering Romanticism. She does not simply conclude that what men call love is frequently sensual and/or unthinking; she concludes that that view of love is wrong. She speaks of love in terms of “imagination” almost in the sense that Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses the term. Yet Glasgow does succeed in introducing into her story an unconventional but realistic assessment of the moral questions involved in the double standard. George is wrong, not because he slept with another woman, but because he has treated both that woman and his wife as objects for his own convenience. Unlike her Victorian predecessors, Glasgow is not concerned with the religious aspects of extramarital affairs; or with Margaret’s and George’s mutual duties as husband and wife, as laid down by civil and ecclesiastical authorities. She dismisses the effect of infidelity and possible divorce on the family structure. It is not George’s sexuality that Glasgow condemns, it is his selfishness. Glasgow underlines her point...
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