Barren Ground

The heroine, Dorinda Oakley, is twenty when the book opens. Frustrated by the monotony of her life with her nervous Calvinist mother and her slow-witted but diligent father, she falls in love with a young doctor, Jason Greylock. Her dreams of joyful fulfillment are short-lived. Jason, by nature weak and unreliable, is forced into marriage with the daughter of a prosperous landowner. Dorinda, pregnant and disillusioned, flees to New York. She loses the baby in an accident but remains in the city for two years, trying to come to terms with life.

Her father’s illness calls her back to Virginia and to the land that will restore her self-esteem. With intelligent use of new farming techniques and unrelenting labor, Dorinda turns her parents’ worn-out acreage into a prosperous dairy farm.

As her fortunes rise, Jason’s fall. He drinks himself into oblivion and his wife, now mad, commits suicide. After many years, Dorinda achieves bittersweet revenge, first buying his bankrupt farm, then caring for him in his dying weeks. Yet she can never restore the joy he stole when he jilted her. Her marriage in middle age to a homely but kind widower is a relationship of companionship and shared labor, devoid of romance.

Glasgow’s theme is embodied in natural images throughout the book. Dorinda’s initial disillusionment is symbolized by broomsedge, the prolific weed that overruns potentially fertile farmland. The pine tree that her father watches from his deathbed comes to represent Dorinda’s endurance and her conviction that the land itself is the only source of fulfillment.

Glasgow’s world is a bleak but not a hopeless one. Though life destroys the weak-willed Jasons, those who, like Dorinda, grow beyond the romantic illusions of youth can find strength and integrity.

Bibliography:

Bond, Tonette. “Pastoral Transformations in Barren Ground.” Mississippi Quarterly 32 (Fall, 1979): 565-576. Discusses how Glasgow shows Dorinda’s pastoral vision enabling her to re-create her internal and external landscapes. Relates Dorinda’s spiritual revitalization to that of the defeated South; both need imagination, energy, and innovation to reclaim the Arcadian ideal.

Donovan, Josephine. After the Fall: The Demeter-Persephone Myth in Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989. Donovan describes Glasgow’s use of the resurrection myth in the mother-daughter relationship in Barren Ground, which reflects a shift from a traditional Southern view of male supremacy to a woman-identified world, both for Dorinda and for the author, in which “green world”...

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Form and Content

Barren Ground combines a realistic portrayal of the effort and knowledge necessary to revitalize impoverished Virginia farmland with an equally realistic study of Dorinda Oakley’s emotional development. She combines the suppressed energy of her romantic nature with her inheritance of an intense work ethic and channels them both into the restoration of Old Farm, rather than into passionate relationships. By having Dorinda substitute work and satisfying accomplishment for the seemingly inevitable disappointments of romantic passion and by allowing her to be content with her achievements, Ellen Glasgow critiques the limitations of romance for successful human existence. She indicates that women’s lives can be as fulfilling as men’s—and not necessarily through their passionate relationships, as is traditionally expected for women.

The book is organized into three sections that use the techniques of realism to reflect both Dorinda’s outer and inner lives as she moves toward this final understanding. In “Part First,” Glasgow contrasts the bleakness of the Virginia landscape, of Dorinda’s family life, and of the community (which are all depicted as equally barren ground) with the pleasures of her intense romantic experience, which color and soften this bleakness. By the end of this section, however, a pregnant Dorinda is deserted by Jason Greylock, the young owner of Five Oaks. She runs away to New York City, vowing in a refrain that runs...

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Places Discussed

Pedlar’s Mill

Pedlar’s Mill. Fictional Virginia community located in fictional Queen Elizabeth County. Pedlar’s Mill is a rural, farming community whose inhabitants are embattled by their long and arduous struggles with poor soil that seems better suited for broomsedge and scrub pine than for cash crops. Pedlar’s Mill was around a century before the time in which the novel is set. It is a poor community, comprising primarily descendants of Scotch-Irish families who migrated from Virginia’s Shenandoah highlands to Virginia’s low country. Most come from families that have seen better times, both economically and socially.

The lives of Pedlar’s Mill residents are quite different from the romantic ideals popularly associated with the Old South in Ellen Glasgow’s time. They are not landed gentry living off the fat of the land and the labor of slaves; they survive by tilling their soil, planting seeds, tending crops, milking cows, and reaping meager harvests. Instead of ordering their lives around a chivalric code of manners, they grapple with the laws of nature, finding in them both a sense of continuity, as in the cycle of the seasons, and an unconquerable coarseness, represented by their inability to make headway against the ever-expanding and almost-impossible-to-eradicate broomsedge or their impoverished condition.

Old Farm

Old Farm. Farm owned by the Oakley family in which much of the novel’s first section, “Broomsedge,” is set. There, Dorinda’s parents, Joshua and Eudora, labor tirelessly to sustain their family and...

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Context

Glasgow worked in the tradition of the novel of manners but with modernist techniques. She serves as a precursor, along with Kate Chopin, to such twentieth century white Southern women writers as Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Harper Lee, as well as a more recent group of women writers that includes Barbara Kingsolver, Fanny Flagg, Olive Ann Burns, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jill McCorkle, Lee Smith, Ellen Gilchrist, Gail Godwin, and Kay Gibbons. Those in the former group, while often portraying women as reflective of the Southern ideal, also wrote in covert rebellion against those traditional roles, Those writers in the latter group often create women as misfits or overt rebels in juxtaposition to the Southern lady.

Glasgow’s novels form a body of work that functions as a social history of Virginia from the Civil War to her own time, focusing on the rise of the middle class and often representing the bleak landscape of the soul. She rejected the popular sentimentalist and romantic vision of antebellum Southern idealism by her use of realist techniques and a strong sense of irony in both serious and comic fiction.

Throughout her work, Glasgow juxtaposes the barren ground of Southern life and landscape, especially for women, with their inner strength and endurance, what she describes as a “vein of iron,” the title of her 1935 novel. She described character, a sense of duty, and a disciplined mind as necessary to continuing gracefully in the face of defeat and even death. She defends Southern women, but works to separate them from constricting ideals.

Bibliography

Bond, Tonette. “Pastoral Transformations in Barren Ground.” Mississippi Quarterly 32 (Fall, 1979): 565-576. Discusses how Glasgow shows Dorinda’s pastoral vision enabling her to re-create her internal and external landscapes. Relates Dorinda’s spiritual revitalization to that of the defeated South; both need imagination, energy, and innovation to reclaim the Arcadian ideal.

Donovan, Josephine. After the Fall: The Demeter-Persephone Myth in Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989. Donovan describes Glasgow’s use of the resurrection myth in the mother-daughter relationship in Barren Ground, which reflects a shift from a traditional Southern view of male supremacy to a woman-identified world, both for Dorinda and for the author, in which “green world” values and the ethos of Demeter the Mother are affirmed.

Ekman, Barbro. The End of a Legend: Ellen Glasgow’s History of Southern Women. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1979. A listing and discussion of Glasgow’s three basic types of Southern women and their subtypes includes the Victorian Woman, the Liberated Woman, and the “New Woman,” who can be either strong or inadequate.

Glasgow, Ellen. The Woman Within. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1954. A somewhat self-pitying memoir that sometimes borders on the melodramatic, in which Glasgow presents herself as uniquely sensitive and suffering. Yet the autobiography is also a frank revelation of Glasgow’s inner feelings and an exercise in perceptive self-analysis, reflecting her interest in psychology and psychoanalysis, which she uses in her portrayal of Dorinda.

Godbold, E. Stanly, Jr. Ellen Glasgow and the Woman Within. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972. A biography that...

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