(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 835 words.)

Barren Ground Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 happiness. Jason sits in church with the Ellgoods and their daughter, Geneva, and afterward, he goes home with them to dinner. Dorinda sits in her bedroom that afternoon and meditates on her unhappiness.

Later, Jason unexpectedly proposes, confessing that he, too, is lonely and unhappy. He speaks of his attachment to his father that brought him back to Pedlar’s Mill, and he curses the tenant system, which he says is ruining the South. He and Dorinda plan to be married in the fall. When they meet during the hot, dark nights that summer, he kisses her with half-angry, half-hungry violence.

Geneva, meanwhile, tells her friends that she is engaged to Jason. In September, Jason leaves for the city to buy surgical instruments. When he is overlong in returning, Dorinda begins to worry. At last she visits Aunt Mehitable Green, an old black conjuring woman, in the hope that she heard some gossip from the Greylock servants concerning Jason. While there, Dorinda becomes ill and learns that she is to have a child. Distressed, she goes to Five Oaks and confronts drunken old Dr. Greylock, who tells her, cackling with sly mirth, that Jason married Geneva in the city. The old man intimates that Jason is white-livered and was forced into the marriage by the Ellgoods. He adds, leering, that Jason and his bride are expected home that night.

On the way home, Dorinda, herself unseen, sees the carriage that brings Jason and Geneva to Five Oaks. Late that night, she goes to the Greylock house and tries to shoot Jason, who is frightened and begs for her pity and understanding. Despising him for his weakness and falseness, she blunders home through the darkness. Two days later, she packs her suitcase...

(The entire section is 1297 words.)