Barren Ground Summary
by Ellen Glasgow

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(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 has learned to live without hope or joy—merely to endure life—the reader is likely to find Dorinda’s denial of love and even of sex a tragic denial of life.

Ironically, after she has lost the capacity to love, Dorinda is courted by several men who, unlike her first love, are strong, unselfish, and responsible. The first of them is a young doctor, whom she meets in New York, where she has been living and working after her flight from home. He senses her frigidity, but he hopes eventually to win her love. It is clear that Dorinda must fight to deny her emotional self; when she attends a concert, she is intensely moved. If there is a chance for love, however, it is thwarted by fate. Dorinda is called home because her father has had a stroke and her mother needs her help.

Actually, Dorinda is not unwilling to return home. During her stay in New York, she has been reading books on agriculture, and she has an idea that the farm could be made profitable. More than that, Dorinda muses, she can dare to give her heart...

(The entire section is 835 words.)