Critical Overview

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‘‘The Difference’’ was published twice in 1923, first in June in Harper’s Magazine and then only a few months later as one of seven stories included in Glasgow’s collection The Shadowy Third. The volume was primarily comprised of ghost stories and tales of the supernatural with ‘‘The Difference’’ one of the notable exceptions. While the collection was reviewed by most well-known newspapers, Glasgow was primarily a novelist. As such, The Shadowy Third received little attention, though most reviewers did comment favorably on Glasgow’s latest effort. The New York Times reviewer particularly enjoyed the ghost stories, while the Literary Review commended Glasgow’s ‘‘extraordinarily fine’’ construction and craftsmanship of stories. Reviewer Rebecca Lowrie went on to praise The Shadowy Third, finding it ‘‘without waste of words, carelessness of phrase, or ill-considered characterization.’’

Critical attention paid to the story did not greatly increase over the decades. Only as scholars devoted entire volumes to the writings of Glasgow could discussion and analysis of ‘‘The Difference’’ be found, and even then, such commentary was fleeting. This may come as little surprise since Glasgow only preserved 13 short stories over the course of her lengthy career. Glasgow is also remembered as a chronicler of changing times in the South, and ‘‘The Difference’’ does little to add to such a body of work (though it is set in Richmond, Virginia, the location does little to inform the work).

Several Glasgow scholars, however, have made a study of Glasgow’s short stories and commented on the place of ‘‘The Difference’’ in the author’s body of work. J.R. Raper contends that the stories she wrote during the early 1920s show her development as an artist more so than do the novels of this same period. They also show her interest in examining psychological structure and issues. Other critics have noted Glasgow’s increasing understanding of the female consciousness as exemplified in stories from The Shadowy Third. Such an understanding of psychological shifting is ‘‘adroitly demonstrated’’ in ‘‘The Difference,’’ writes Frederick P. McDowell in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as ‘‘the heroine develops a kinship with her rival, her husband’s mistress, as well as jealousy.’’

Louis Auchincloss, in a general discussion of Glasgow’s fiction, contends that the writer ‘‘will be remembered for her women, not her men.’’ Indeed, critics have noted that many of the stories in the collection are similar in their portrayal of independent female characters or female characters who must become strong juxtaposed against male characters who are insensitive, stupid, cowardly, and traitorous. While some critics have objected to such fictitious portrayals of men, a practice which Glasgow also employs in her novels, others maintain that that George’s actions clearly show him to be inferior to the wife he has betrayed.

One similarity shared by the majority of contemporary critics, however, is their singling out ‘‘The Difference’’ as one of Glasgow’s best of the collection. Edgar MacDonald, in his discussion of Glasgow’s short stories in a special issue of The Mississippi Quarterly devoted entirely to the author, calls ‘‘The Difference’’ ‘‘perfectly plotted, a series of scenes in which the central character learns something about herself, a novel in miniature.’’

Critics have disagreed in their analysis of the story and the literary devices it employs. For instance, Raper, writing in From a Sunken Garden , declares that the story lacks the ironic perspective and comic vision of other of Glasgow’s short stories; ‘‘its tone is chiefly pathetic, if vaguely amusing; its perspective, that of flat realism.’’ MacDonald, however, directly refutes Raper’s argument: ‘‘Glasgow handles superbly George’s bewilderment over Margaret’s taking his little fling so seriously. Raper misses...

(This entire section contains 741 words.)

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the happily ironic tone. . . but nothing could be more delicious than Margaret swept up in George’s protective arms and his telling her she’s upset because she’s hungry.’’ MacDonald ends his discussion of ‘‘The Difference’’ by calling it a ‘‘seriocomic curtain-raiser.’’ Marion K. Richards inEllen Glasgow’s Development as a Novelist would likely agree with MacDonald’s analysis, finding George’s behavior demonstrative of ‘‘the satire where she [Glasgow] excels.’’ Unlike these critics, Linda W. Wagner, writing for the Dictionary of Literary Biography finds the content more interesting than the form, bluntly calling the story ‘‘bitter.’’ She further notes in her book Ellen Glasgow, Beyond Convention that Glasgow makes her important statement of the different ways in which men and women think about and speak about love.

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Essays and Criticism