Glasgow’s characterizations in Vein of Iron are rich and detailed. A special feature of characterization is Glasgow’s portrayal of the family’s shared consciousness. This consciousness is a shared history which seems to divide into masculine and feminine versions. In the men, there has been a hunger for wisdom and the freedom in which to pursue it. This hunger has appeared in their tradition of dissent which carried them from Scotland, to Ireland, to America, and finally to Ironside. In the women, there has been a steady refusal to surrender to the forces of chaos. They decline to accept defeat by war, disaster, and disease; they draw strength from their past, and they project their family toward life. This sense of a sustaining wholeness in a family determined to continue into the future and dedicated to the pursuit of something beyond life is richly captured and portrayed by Glasgow, especially in part 1. These forces come to a focus in Ada. She makes a whole and happy life in the chaos of “the dying age” because of her sense of belonging to and continuing this way of living which transcends social and political forms.
John is an important foil to Ada. He has chosen to pursue God through reason, but he realizes that God may be pursued just as validly through the emotions. In fact, he recognizes that the central cause of his pursuit is a passion, a hunger to know. In the context of John’s scholarship, Ada’s search for happiness becomes, also, a search for God. Both find their searches fulfilled repeatedly in various forms in the very process of searching. Both characters repeatedly come to moments in their lives when they are able to affirm that despite much pain, they have been happy and they are happy at the moment.