People Are Not What They Seem

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In the Dictionary of Literary Biography noted Glasgow scholar Frederick P. McDowell called Ellen Glasgow ‘‘the first truly modern writer in the South.’’ Not only did Glasgow break with tradition when she embraced what was then considered to be an entirely inappropriate activity for a young southern woman— writing—she also used her writing to rebel against traditional values, both in the South and in literature itself. As such, Glasgow was truly a woman ahead of her time. At the beginning of the 20th century, woman’s accepted role in society was that of wife and mother, and women were expected to subordinated their interests to those of their husband. As a successful woman writer who never married, Glasgow broke away from this restrictive mode. Although she was raised in a typical southern fashion, and received virtual no encouragement to pursue writing, Glasgow developed into a woman very different from what society would preordain for her.

In her numerous novels as well as in some of her short stories, Glasgow explores many of the problems women and women artists of her time faced. Her autobiography points out the similarities between many of Glasgow’s characters and the writer herself. Early in her career, as in her 1913 novel Virginia, Glasgow clearly had a hard time imagining, and thus creating, a female character who broke away from her accepted societal role. By mid-life, however, Glasgow had made the choice to live independently and pursue her career instead of marriage and family. As her career and life experiences progressed, Glasgow began a deft exploration of the consciousnesses of women who made similar choices or who were coming to understand the inequality under which they had been living.

Margaret Fleming, the protagonist in Glasgow’s 1923 short story ‘‘The Difference’’ is one of those woman in the process of undergoing a lifealtering transformation as she comes to realize that her lifelong subordination to her husband has brought her, not happiness, but a life built upon deceit and unappreciated self-sacrifice. While the story was little noted at the time of its publication (Glasgow was primarily a novelist, penning 19 novels in her almost five-decade-long career) and has received little critical attention in the intervening decades, several scholars have noted the important place it holds in the body of Glasgow’s work devoted to examining the female psyche.

As the story opens, Margaret Fleming is beginning to feel the end of the world as she knows it: she has just discovered, via letter, that her husband George has been having an affair with a woman named Rose Morrison. After her initial fear at losing her husband, Margaret decides to sacrifice her own happiness to George’s; she visits Rose to announce her intention of giving him up, but when she shares the news with her husband he is shocked and appalled. For George does not love Rose, in fact, he had merely viewed the affair as ‘‘recreation.’’ With George’s revelation, Margaret realizes she has nothing left in life, not her belief in the eternal bond of love, not happiness in the life she has led, nor even the sense of moral superiority that would come with giving up what she loves most— George. Margaret’s epiphany at the end of ‘‘The Difference’’ understates one of the themes of the story: that people and situations are not always what they seem.

Margaret’s saga epitomizes the plight of women in a society where they are allowed little functionality other than being wives and mother. Up until receiving Rose’s letter, Margaret has considered herself to lead a contented and fulfilling life. She had always...

(This entire section contains 1910 words.)

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reveled in her ability to make his life comfortable; the very room in which the opening action takes place, the upstairs library, Margaret called ‘‘George’s room’’ because everything in it ‘‘had been chosen to please him.’’ Margaret also has taken pride in her assistance to George in his work writing a book on the history of law, a book ‘‘that could not have been written without her.’’ Until she learns about Rose Morrison, nothing in Margaret’s life could make her question her role and importance to George and the choices she has made in her life. Once she does learn of George’s betrayal, however, an interesting transformation happens: Margaret immediately acknowledges that her life has not brought her great personal satisfaction. The emergence of the truth about George causes Margaret to face an even greater truth about herself.

While historical studies and Glasgow’s own life show the difficulties that turn-of-the-century women had in forging independent lives and careers, ‘‘The Difference’’ focuses on the difficulties that one woman has in recognizing her own true desires and separating them from those of her husband. Margaret’s name means ‘‘pearl,’’ and her reflections show that she is just that: a small treasure hidden away under a hard, almost indestructible shell. Only upon learning of her husband’s treachery does she acknowledge that ‘‘the real Margaret, the vital part of her, was hidden far away. . . She knew that there were secrets within herself which she had never acknowledged in her own thoughts; that there were unexpressed longings which had never taken shape even in her own imagination.’’ With these words, Margaret reveals that she has been less than honest with herself and George, and even more importantly, that she finds her life to be significantly lacking. As with many people, only experiencing such personal devastation brings Margaret to this point of brutal self-reflection.

Margaret’s confession emphasizes that the role of looking after a husband is not enough to fulfill a woman. Margaret had always equated her caretaking of George with her love for him, and she had previously believed that his acceptance of it— indeed, his need for it—showed his own deep love for her. Learning of his affair makes Margaret realize that he does not love her as she loves him. Further, George’s taking a mistress merely for fun instead of for love seems clear evidence to her that he does not recognize her feelings for him as true love, for if he did, she reasons, he would never choose to hurt her so deeply.

Margaret, like many women in her situation, primarily sees George’s affair as a betrayal, but not merely one based on sexual infidelity and alienation of affection, but one based on his inability to see beyond the surface Margaret that she presents to the world. During her confrontation with George, she ‘‘longed with all her heart to say: ‘There were possibilities in me that you never suspected. I also am capable of a great love. In my heart I also am a creature of romance, of adventure. If you had only known it, you might have found in marriage all you have sought elsewhere. . . .’’’ But she cannot give voice to these words. To do so would demonstrate to George her newly discovered dissatisfaction with her life. Further, it would make her own disillusioned feelings permanent. For his part, George has made it clear that he follows that dichotomy men often apply to women: the woman they love versus the woman they can have fun with. Margaret had made the critical mistake of believing because she loved George and because he relied upon her, that he loved her in the same way that she loved him.

Dorothy Chambers, Margaret’s friend, is the only character in the story who understands that ‘‘When a man and a woman talk of love they speak two different languages’’; for Margaret love is ‘‘a kind of abstract power like religion’’ but to a man ‘‘it is simply the way he feels.’’ Margaret takes on the rather naive tack that if a man ‘‘love the other woman, he doesn’t love’’ her. For Margaret, the only kind of love that exists in the one she has practiced throughout her 20 years of marriage to George: a self-sacrificing love. To remain true to ‘‘the ideal of self-surrender, which she had learned in the past,’’ Margaret is willing to give up ‘‘her greatest happiness’’ and give George his freedom to be with Rose, for she believes that this and this alone will bring George his greatest happiness. Even at her lowest moment, Margaret can only put the desires of George ahead of her own. In remaining true to herself, Margaret can at least derive some personal satisfaction and ‘‘the opportunity to be generous.’’

For her part, Rose would seem to be the antithesis to Margaret: she is a young Bohemian artist, prone to slovenliness, up-front behavior, and a willingness to speak her mind to get what she wants. However, the reader’s first introduction to Rose demonstrates that Rose is not as free as she appears. In Rose’s living room Margaret sees ‘‘a canary in a gilded cage [that] broke into song as she entered.’’ Clearly, Rose, who ‘‘waited alone [in George’s villa] for happiness’’ is like the colorful but caged canary. This parallelism is further emphasized by Rose’s clothes which are ‘‘dyed in brilliant hues’’ and by her voice, which is ‘‘like the song of a bird.’’ It should come as little surprise, then, to find that Rose and Margaret do share one important similarity: a romantic view of love. Both women believe that because George is having an affair with Rose he truly loves her. By the end of the story, Margaret openly acknowledges this similarity; it seemed to her ‘‘that she and this strange girl were united by some secret bond which George could not share— by the bond of woman’s immemorial disillusionment.

Of the female characters, only Dorothy appears to have the talent to see people and their actions for what they are. Her ability to straddle the Victorian world and the modern world is demonstrated in her brief appearance, as she speaks of mundane, upperclass matters (charity bridge parties and committee luncheons) but still smokes cigarettes. She also understands the difference with which women and men view love and dispenses practical advice for the forsaken wife (‘‘‘For when George ceases to be desirable for sentimental reasons, he will still have his value as a good provider.’’’). In a sense, Dorothy is more modern than even Rose as she sees things for what they are, refusing to dress them up in pretty, more acceptable terms. Even Margaret recognizes Rose’s talk of George’s need for ‘‘selfdevelopment’’ as one of the ‘‘catchwords of the new freedom.’’

By the end of the story, although Margaret still has George, ‘‘She had lost more than love, more than happiness, she had lost her belief in life.’’ Her pleasant world has been turned upside down, her husband has brought into her life a ‘‘cheap and tawdry’’ reality, and she retains none of the dignity which she had previously brought to her existence. Instead, she realizes she had ‘‘overplayed life’’ by endowing serious, deep traits in a man who believes that all she requires to feel better on this fateful day is a ‘‘good dinner.’’ Margaret has paid the price for subordinating herself to a husband who is unworthy of her ideals and morality. As Louis Auchincloss stated, ‘‘Miss Glasgow’s heroines . . . are devastated by her worthless men.’’

Source: Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000. Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

The Element of Idealism

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Since Ellen Glasgow used her short stories as a way of practicing new techniques and developing themes, the best of the stories possess the density and richness of her fully-formed novels, and they measure up to the work of her better known contemporaries such as Henry James. Critics generally agree that ‘‘The Difference’’ is one of Glasgow’s best and that its drawing-room setting is reminiscent of James’s ‘‘The Beast in the Jungle.’’ One of the themes that ‘‘The Difference’’ articulates, according to many readers, is woman’s moral superiority to man’s. But to read the story as a tale of moral superiority—as if that is the main difference between men and women— is to miss Glasgow’s subtle social critique and her nuanced understanding to gender relations. ‘‘The Difference’’ is about more than the disparity between women’s and men’s moral sensibility; it’s also about the difference between the Victorian and modern ages, between beauty and substance, and between belief and truth.

Glasgow’s characterizations of the differences between George’s and Margaret’s moral constitutions and attitudes toward love and marriage is more complex than some of her critics give her credit for. Readers of ‘‘The Difference’’ will be tempted to interpret Glasgow’s point of view—the entire story is seen through Margaret’s eyes—as evidence of her sympathy for the wife. But evidence in the story and in her novel The Sheltered Life which contains more fully developed characters based on George and Margaret, reveals Glasgow’s more richly textured views of gender differences and the institution of marriage.

One of the hallmarks of Glasgow’s fiction is her choice of interior monologue over dialogue, and one of the effects of this stylistic device is that it highlights the difference between the character’s perceptions of events on the one hand, and the objective reality and other characters’ perceptions on the other hand. In the first scene of ‘‘The Difference,’’ for example, Margaret has just received the letter from Rose Morrison informing her that she is in love with George, and is convinced that her twenty-year marriage is over. She engages in domestic small talk with her wayward husband while the ‘‘letter in her bosom scorched her as if it were fire.’’ But she’s so practiced at managing appearances that she knows ‘‘on the surface of her life nothing had changed.’’ She’s able to maintain appearances under such emotional strain because that’s what she has been trained to do. While she chats with her husband about trivial things, she is aware that ‘‘the real Margaret, the vital part of her, was hidden far away in that deep place where the seeds of mysterious impulses and formless desires lie buried.’’

Margaret practices what Glasgow calls ‘‘evasive idealism.’’ That is, she has been trained as a southern woman of the upper class to maintain at all costs the illusion that all is well. Describing the faded beauty Eva, who is modeled after Margaret, another character in The Sheltered Life says: ‘‘Even the sanguine brightness of her smile, which seemed to him as transparent as glass, was the mirror, he told himself, of persevering hypocrisy. A living triumph of self-discipline, of inward poise, of the confirmed habit of not wanting to be herself, she had found her reward in that quiet command over circumstances.’’ What motivates Margaret, from the moment she receives the letter then, is not so much a desire to save her marriage as a compulsion to maintain appearances and protect her pride and her husband’s reputation.

When Margaret undertakes the journey to call upon Rose Morrison, she crosses entirely from one world to another, from the predictable and safe home of the Victorian woman to the unknown and volatile domain of the modern woman. But despite her inner turmoil, Margaret’s commitment to the doctrine of evasive idealism ensures that nothing on the surface of her life appear different. Having fulfilled all George’s requests—ordering flowers for a funeral, mending and laying out his clothes— Margaret then turns her attention to her troubles. She assures herself that ‘‘now that she had attended to the details of existence, she would have time for the problem of living.’’ When she leaves her comfortable and fashionable house, Margaret believes that ‘‘the door closed sharply on her life of happiness.’’ She doesn’t believe she can change the facts of the relationship between George and Rose; her only ambition is to preserve dignity and maintain appearances. She is thwarted in even this modest goal, however, when she discovers that Rose does not share the same values, that she is different.

Margaret can tell immediately that Rose is a new woman because she greets her ‘‘with the clear and competent eyes of youth,’’ and ‘‘an infallible self-esteem.’’ Margaret finds her ‘‘vulgar’’ and ‘‘a picture of barbaric beauty.’’ But the object that seems to embody all the differences between the two women is the ‘‘queer piece of rope’’ that holds Rose’s kimono-like dress closed. This piece of cording represents to Margaret everything she isn’t and everything she fears. On one level she realizes that the tied belt is a casual, contingent closure that signals sexual liberation and availability. But it also signifies an entire set of beliefs and attitudes that threaten not only Margaret’s marriage to George, but her entire worldview as well. Rose’s appearance indicates that she has betrayed the code of womanhood to which Margaret has dedicated her life. It’s not just that ‘‘her fingernails needed attention; and beneath the kimonolike garment, a frayed place showed at the back of her stocking,’’ it’s that she has refused to commit herself to the maintenance of appearances that Margaret believes is every woman’s duty, and to which she believes George also subscribes. As Margaret puts it, ‘‘the girl was careless about those feminine details by which George declared so often that he judged a woman.’’ Suspecting that ‘‘this physical negligence extended to the girl’s habit of thought,’’ Margaret soon discovers that the George of Rose’s imagination doesn’t even resemble the reserved Victorian to whom she has been married for more than twenty years.

Reeling from the dissonance between Rose and herself, Margaret must then wrestle with yet another fundamental difference. Rose claims to have discovered or liberated the ‘‘real’’ George. She accuses Margaret of misjudging her husband and insists that ‘‘he is so big, so strong and silent, that it would take an artist to understand him.’’ Margaret begins to think that her privileging of surface over substance may have led her to misjudge her own husband. Interested only in the outer surface of her own subjectivity, Margaret has come to believe that she need only attend to her husband’s surfaces as well. The encounter with Rose makes her wonder for a moment if George possesses ‘‘profounder depths of feeling that she had ever reached’’ or cultivated ‘‘some secret garden of romance where she had never entered.’’ Glasgow pulls back on Margaret’s opportunity for genuine self-reflection, however, and Margaret fails to seize the chance for epiphany and real change. Preparing to confront her husband with Rose’s claims that he is in love with her and willing to sacrifice herself for his happiness, Margaret ‘‘slipped into her prettiest tea gown’’ and ‘‘reflected that even renunciation was easier when one looked desirable.’’ In other words, her only defense against and preparation for this decisive moment is to look pretty.

Margaret’s commitment to the doctrine of evasive idealism has never wavered. Though she faces serious challenges to her worldview when she must confront several instances of difference, she cannot or will not seize the opportunity. Readers and critics who see this stance as noble misread Glasgow’s attitude toward her character. Glasgow is less interested in dramatizing Margaret’s stoic martyrdom or in proving that George is a cad (he is), than she is in critiquing Margaret’s adherence to an oppressive and retrograde code. When Margaret finds out that George’s affair with Rose is only casual and cannot be recast into a beautiful and noble drama, she is devastated: ‘‘So it was all wasted! Nothing that she could do could lift the situation above the level of the commonplace, the merely vulgar. She was defrauded not only of happiness, but even of the opportunity to be generous.’’ The story ends in the drawing room where it started and George and Margaret’s life together is no different. George appeals to her desire to make-believe all is well and suggests that the only problem is that she’s nervous and hungry. Margaret succumbs both to his embrace and to his outrageous lie that nothing has happened.

Source: Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000. Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton teaches literature and writing classes at Southwestern University. She writes frequently about the short story.

Examination of the Protagonist

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Ellen Glasgow’s short story ‘‘The Difference’’ opens shortly after Margaret Fleming, a woman of middle age, has read a letter from one Rose Morrison, informing her of an ongoing affair with George, Margaret’s husband of twenty years. The story’s title focuses on the theme of the ‘‘difference’’ in Margaret’s perception of her husband, her marriage, the world around her and even herself, as a result of receiving this shocking information. The ‘‘difference’’ also refers to the difference in the signifi- cance of the extra-marital affair to George and to Margaret, as well as the general ‘‘difference’’ in women’s versus men’s perceptions of marriage, romance and infidelity. While Margaret’s perceptions of her entire life are reorganized as a result of this sudden revelation, she also develops a sense of the ‘‘difference’’ between her external behavior toward others and her internal thoughts, feelings and urges.

Ellen Glasgow’s writing has been noted as a fiction of ‘‘manners,’’ which critiques the hollow social niceties of upper middle class Southern Victorian society. Stephanie Bronson has noted that ‘‘Glasgow satirized the conventions of her society, especially as they effected women, but always with a degree of self-reflection.’’ In this story, the main character becomes aware, perhaps for the first time, of her surface level social gestures and behaviors which belie a more complex internal psychology. Thus, while her illusions about her marriage are punctured, and she begins to see around her a different world from that in which she had imagined she’d been living for the past twenty years (for ‘‘never until this afternoon had she felt that the wind was sweeping away the illusion of happiness by which she lived’’), she becomes all the more aware of her own disingenuousness in her interactions with others. In the following essay, I will examine the moments of Margaret’s afternoon after her discovery of her husband’s affair in which she becomes painfully aware of the ‘‘difference’’ between her behavior toward others and her inner self.

‘‘On the surface of her life nothing had changed.’’ Yet, in discovering her husband’s ongoing secret life in an affair with a younger woman, Margaret discovers that she, too, leads a secret internal life she was not even aware of:

But the real Margaret, the vital part of her, was hidden far away in that deep place where the seeds of mysterious impulses and formless desires lie buried. She knew that there were secrets within herself which she had never acknowledged in her own thoughts; that there were unexpressed longings which had never taken shape even in her imagination.

In learning of his secret affair, Margaret begins to wonder if her husband, too, hides beneath his supreme civility toward her secret depths of passion and emotion equal to her own: ‘‘Was there in George, she asked now, profounder depths of feeling than she had ever reached; was there some secret garden of romance where she had never entered? Was George larger, wilder, more adventurous in imagination, than she had dreamed? Had the perfect lover lain hidden in his nature, awaiting only the call of youth?’’ It is the realization that her husband harbors a hidden passion, as evidenced by his affair with the beautiful artist, that leads Margaret to the realization that she, too, harbors secret, primitive, ‘‘savage’’ passions within her, for ‘‘Somewhere beneath the civilization of the ages there was the skeleton of the savage.’’

With this knowledge of her own hidden desires, as well as the depths of pain she hides at the discovery of her husband’s affair, Margaret becomes increasingly aware of the ‘‘superficial’’ nature of her interactions with him, as well as with others around her. When George comes home, and before she admits to him her knowledge of his affair, their interactions are no different from their daily interactions of the past twenty years, yet, as she speaks to him, she ‘‘knew it was only the superficial self that was speaking.’’ And, when she smiles up at him in what appears to be perfect sincerity, ‘‘it was a smile that hurt her with its irony.’’ Her face indeed becomes a mask of insincere civility, over which she barely has control: ‘‘The expression on her face felt as stiff as a wax mask, and though she struggled to relax her muscles, they persisted in that smile of inane cheerfulness.’’ Even a visit from Dorothy, her dearest friend, becomes an exercise in insincere expressions of warmth, for ‘‘her welcome was hollow, and at the very instant when she returned her friend’s kiss she was wishing that she could send her away. That was one of the worst things about suffering; it made one indifferent and insincere.’’ Throughout their visit, Margaret’s face continues to compulsively mask her emotions, so that, ‘‘she asked herself if Dorothy could look into her face and not see the difference?’’

As Margaret dresses to go out and confront her husband’s mistress, she makes a metaphor of the ‘‘veil’’ she wears, as ‘‘she reflected, with bitter mirth, that only in novels could one hide one’s identity behind a veil.’’ And yet, Margaret continues to hide her inner identity behind the veil of her well-bred manners and mask-like facial expressions. Even when she confronts Rose face to face, she compulsively hides her true emotions behind her gracious manners: ‘‘and though she tried to make her voice insolent, the deep instinct of good manners was greater than her effort.’’ Furthermore, Rose Morrison’s ‘‘candidness’’ and ‘‘sincerity’’ make Margaret all the more aware of her own insincerity and hidden emotion. The younger woman’s ‘‘barbaric simplicity of emotion’’ in contrast to Margaret’s repressed formality ‘‘repels’’ her. Rose further emphasizes her motivation in writing Margaret the letter in the name of ‘‘sincerity’’; she tells Margaret that, ‘‘I felt we owed you the truth.’’ Rose Morrison’s unguarded expression of her feelings for Margaret’s husband becomes an implicit critique of the older woman’s inability to match outward expression to inner feeling. ‘‘I know that subterfuge and lies and dishonesty cannot bring happiness,’’ Rose declares. Yet Margaret continues to contort her face in the service of hiding her emotions; as she speaks to Rose, ‘‘Her lips felt cracked with the effort she made to keep them from trembling.’’

In preparing to confront her husband the evening after meeting Rose Morrison, Margaret, impelled by a desire to evoke his hidden passion for her own sake, ‘‘slipped into her prettiest tea gown,’’ and ‘‘touched her pale lips with color.’’ But even this late attempt at donning the accoutrements of passion and romance becomes only another false attempt to bring life to a dead marriage, for, even as she does so, she thinks defeatedly that, ‘‘‘. . . it is like painting the cheeks of the dead.’’’ In her vain and abortive attempt to kindle a long-repressed passion with her husband, when she confronts him that evening with her knowledge of the affair, Margaret envisions herself as an actress, or a simple doll, a ‘‘marionnette,’’ playing a ‘‘scene,’’ rather than a sincere woman in an emotionally intimate encounter with the man she loves.

While she sat there she realized that she had no part or place in the scene before her. Never could she speak the words that she longed to utter. Never could she make him understand the real self behind the marionette at which he was looking. She longed with all her heart to say: ‘‘There were possibilities in me that you never suspected. I also am capable of a great love. In my heart I also am a creature of romance, of adventure. If you had only known it, you might have found in marriage all that you have sought elsewhere. . .’’ This was what she longed to cry out. . .

Despite these longings, however, Margaret is unable to express such sentiments to her husband. Again, it seems that she is incapable of the sincerity which would allow her face to express, and mouth to utter, her true feelings: ‘‘Her heart was filled with noble words, with beautiful sentiments, but she could not make her lips pronounce them in spite of all the efforts she made.’’

While discovering her husband’s secret affair has made Margaret supremely aware of both her own hidden depths of passion and her surface level insincerity—the tragedy for her becomes, not the jealousy aroused by her knowledge of the affair, but the disillusionment of finding that the affair is not evidence of a repressed romantic in George, but merely of an unimaginative man who compares an extra-marital dalliance to a game of golf.

During their exchange in which she confronts him about his affair, Margaret, already hyper-aware of her own mask of civility, becomes painfully aware of the artificiality of her husband’s surface level responses to her. When she greets George that evening, even the light by which she now sees him is described as ‘‘artificial.’’ Margaret notes in George’s initial response to her admission of knowledge of the affair that his face expresses, not any strong emotional response, but simply ‘‘emptiness.’’ He looks at her with an expression which holds ‘‘nothing’’ but ‘‘the blankness of complete surprise.’’ As their conversation about the affair continues, Margaret notices a variety of gestures and facial expressions on her husband which communicate nothing more than a façade of civility designed to ‘‘hide’’ any true emotion. At one point in the conversation, ‘‘he coughed abruptly as if he were trying to hide his embarrassment.’’ When he responds to one of her statements by repeating it as a question, she again describes him as ‘‘trying to hide behind that hollow echo.’’ His facial expressions become to her merely ‘‘mechanical’’ gestures, made in effort to hide a ‘‘vacant’’ heart; watching his response, at one point, ‘‘it seemed to her that only mechanical force could jerk his jaw back into place and close the eyelids over his vacant blue eyes.’’ Finally, when George closes the discussion by suggesting they go eat their dinner, ‘‘his face cleared as if by magic.’’ Again, Margaret perceives the trick of illusion, described as ‘‘magic,’’ by which her husband responds to her.

Margaret’s sense of herself as an actress merely playing the part of the scorned wife becomes an awareness that she has completely misinterpreted the play in which she is acting. ‘‘She felt like an actress who has endowed a comic part with the gesture of high tragedy. It was not, she saw clearly now, that she had misunderstood George, but that she has overplayed life.’’ In other words, she now sees her own part in her marriage as an ‘‘act’’ which she has ‘‘overplayed,’’ or endowed with romance and melodramatic emotion, but which is really the ‘‘comic’’ part of the wife who has made a fool of herself by believing in the ‘‘illusion’’ of her husband’s love for her. Thus, while Margaret discovers that her ‘‘act,’’ her façade of good manners, hides a deeper sense of self, the realization that her husband’s ‘‘act’’ hides nothing but ‘‘emptiness’’ beneath his façade of good manners is what ultimately leaves Margaret having ‘‘lost her belief in life.’’

Source: Liz Brent, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000. Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture, specializing in cinema studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in American cinema.

From Jordan’s End to Frenchman’s Bend: Ellen Glasgow’s Short Stories

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Henry Anderson is nowhere apparent in ‘‘Whispering Leaves,’’ but he is very much present in ‘‘The Difference,’’ which appeared in the June issue of Harper’s. Six years after writing the happy ‘‘Thinking Makes it So,’’ Glasgow saw there was a better story to be extracted from the materials of the earlier effort. Vardah and Harold had really been a companionable study team, a ‘‘marriage of true minds,’’ rather than a dalliance in the garden. ‘‘The Difference’’ is perfectly plotted, a series of scenes in which the central character learns something about herself, a novel in miniature. A cataloging of external details is limited to a few poetic images carrying psychological significance. The central intelligence is again named Margaret. ‘‘But the real Margaret, the vital part of her, was hidden far away in that deep place where the seeds of mysterious impulses and formless desires lie buried.’’ In this study of the ‘‘Margaret’’ psyche, Glasgow separates the external rose alter-ego of ‘‘Thinking’’ into a separate entity named Rose. George, described in Henry Anderson terms, is a faithful-faithless husband, loving Margaret but dallying with Rose, an early sketch for George Birdsong in The Sheltered Life. Meeker sees Glasgow returning to ‘‘man’s moral inferiority to woman.’’ but surely the story illustrates a more telling truth: the doubleness of male adultery is the counterpart of female ambivalence, the Margaret-Rose syndrome. As one of the secondary characters observes, ‘‘When a man and a woman talk of love they speak two different languages. They can never understand each other because women love with their imaginations and men with their senses.’’

The dramatic structure suggests drawing-room comedy, similar in feeling to James’s ‘‘The Beast in the Jungle.’’ The series of carefully set scenes is the ‘‘outside’’ of the interior drama, the discovery of multiple selves. ‘‘Outside, in the autumn rain, the leaves were falling,’’ doubtless revealing outlines of bare trees. As a tragi-comedy, such as several of her later works will be, living is a series of improvisations. A letter from the other woman arrives. George enters briefly with domestic requests while the letter burns in Margaret’s bosom. A visitor intrudes, chatting about a domestic crisis in another household, a parallel that makes Margaret determine to confront the other woman. She leaves the ordered comfort of her in-city home to venture by streetcar to an unfashionable suburban villa. Here Miss Glasgow describes accurately a trip from central Richmond, through the Northern suburbs, to Lakeside, but it is also a symbolic trip, from past security to contemporary transience. Modern, redhaired Rose Morrison is an artist. ‘‘Only an artist,’’ Margaret decides, ‘‘could be at once so arrogant with destiny and so ignorant of life.’’ Margaret, as a beautiful Victorian, will give up her husband. She clings to ‘‘the law of sacrifice, the ideal of selfsurrender’’. On the ride home in the lurching streetcar, she charitably envisions a ‘‘remorseful’’ George. ‘‘What agony of mind he must have endured in these past months, these months they had worked so quietly side by side on his book.’’ Returned home, Margaret is met by a concerned husband. Glasgow handles superbly George’s bewilderment over Margaret’s taking his little fling so seriously. Raper misses the happily ironic tone of ‘‘Thinking Makes it So’’ in ‘‘The Difference’’ 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. As Edmonia would shortly make clear in The Romantic Comedians, a good appetite is the best remedy for disillusionment; living on duty upsets the digestion. Glasgow is accused of being unfair to males, but her treatment of George, while comic, is not devoid of amused comprehension. Like most males he may have romantic fantasies about other women, but he is realistic enough to admit that he is only one of a series for the Roses of the world and that his basic comforts lie at home with Margaret. As a type George will reappear like a popular film star in later comedies. In this serio-comic curtain-raiser, brief images of leaves, fires, rain, flowers, mirrors are used tellingly, suggesting the four elements and the humors they engender. . . .

Source: Edgar MacDonald, ‘‘From Jordan’s End to Frenchman’s Bend: Ellen Glasgow’s Short Stories,’’ in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 319ff.


Critical Overview