Barren Ground is a disturbing novel because it represents the ways life can be lived under the most harrowing of circumstances. Ellen Glasgow writes about farmers faced with the difficulties of making an unwilling earth—a wasteland, in fact—yield a living. A few triumph against the odds; some do their best and barely survive; others give up and die early. All except those who give up work exceedingly hard. Glasgow believes, as she says in the 1933 preface to Barren Ground, that “the novel is experience illumined by imagination.” In this novel, as in much of her work, she is faithful to her own experience in her native Virginia but colors that experience with a dark imagination that views human life as a constant struggle in which even the strong do not always survive. Those who do survive must adjust their idealism to fit reality.
The main theme of the novel is stated by its main character, Dorinda Oakley, who thinks that for the majority, life is “barren ground where they have to struggle to make anything grow.” Dorinda has experienced more than the hardships of making a living from the soil of rural Virginia. At the age of twenty, she has the seed of love planted in her heart, only to have it uprooted by her lover’s weakness. After that, as regards passion, her heart is indeed barren ground. Glasgow seems to suggest that Dorinda’s life is also barren ground as far as happiness is concerned. To women, Glasgow writes, “love and happiness [are] interchangeable terms.” After Jason jilts her, Dorinda spends the rest of her life distrusting men and building emotional, mental, physical, and financial walls to protect herself from them. She marries Nathan Pedlar only because she fears loneliness and because he is submissive to her and willing to live without physical intimacy. Dorinda becomes a cynic about love and marriage, believing that they seldom, if ever, go together; even when they do, the love does not endure.
(The entire section is 807 words.)