Style and Technique

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The major stylistic device used by Ellen Glasgow is the symbolism of autumn rain and falling leaves, which take on different nuances throughout the story. They appear prominently at both beginning and end, enclosing the action in an allusive arch of tone and feeling.

At the outset, the leaves are tied into the annual cycle of year: Their falling signifies the necessity of passing, of the old giving way to the new. Thus autumn reminds Margaret that she too is aging, but she accepts it as the price of her memories and values. This time; however, the fall seems final: Her hopes of continuing happiness have been destroyed.

The image of the leaves recurs at critical points throughout. Margaret’s beauty is passing like the leaves; her spirit has been stricken like the leaves and is driven by the storm. She is pale of complexion, colorless like the fallen leaves; Rose has the blazing glow of youth. Margaret remembers her engagement in a rose garden; now the petals and leaves of that garden are nothing but withered ashes. Her universe is dying down.

The flame of love in Rose’s eyes is likened to the blaze of color in burning leaves. However, her neglected villa is surrounded with heaps of rotting leaves, like grave mounds; George derides her dream that he and Rose had reached a “secret garden of romance” in which he became the “perfect lover.” Both women’s hopes and fantasies are stricken like leaves before George’s selfish brutality. In the end, they have only the leaves.

Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Bohemians in Greenwich Village
Shortly after 1900, artists, writers, actors, and political thinkers from all over the United States began to flock to Greenwich Village at the lower end of Manhattan in New York City. These Bohemians—people who live an unconventional, carefree existence and react against accepted societal morality—were attracted both by inexpensive lodgings and by New York’s numerous cultural opportunities, such as attending museums. After the war, however, writers and artists came to predominate in the Village. Writers were close to all the major American publishing houses, and artists could display their work in galleries, even if they were small and obscure. Greenwich Village also boasted experimental theater groups, such as the Provincetown Players, which was co-founded by writer Susan Glaspell in 1915 and which was controlled by artists, not businesspeople. In its 14-year-history, the players produced some 90 plays by new writers such as Eugene O’Neill. ‘‘Little magazines,’’ or journals, devoted to new ways of thinking also emerged out of Village culture. The Masses, for instance, founded in Greenwich Village in 1911, was dedicated to art, literature, and socialism, which featured works by America’s most radical writers and artists. Greenwich Village was also home to a group of intellectuals, including communists, socialists, and other revolutionary thinkers. Such Bohemians came to define the region, which was considered to be artsy and alternative as well as a haven for artists.

The Modern Art Scene
By the early 1920s, the American public had been introduced to new trends in art, such as cubism, which emphasized geometric forms, shapes, and designs; dadaism, which denounced all conventional standards; and surrealism, which attempted to symbolize the unconscious and the world of dreams. The 1913 Armory exhibition in New York shocked the public with Marcel Duchamp’s painting, Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 . New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art did not want to display these radical new styles of art, a feeling shared by other institutions that held yearly exhibitions. As a direct response, several wealthy art patrons established New York’s Museum of...

(This entire section contains 639 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Modern Art in 1929, a museum dedicated to the display of new art. MOMA proved that modern art had finally achieved respectability.

Some American artists chose to chronicle aspects of the contemporary landscape, particularly the effects of the machine age on society. Many painters depicted urban, industrial settings. They often focused on such elements as factories, technology, workers, and tenements.

The Modern American Woman
Long before the start of the 20th century, ‘‘the cult of true womanhood’’ or ‘‘the cult of domesticity,’’ which called for a woman to devote herself to her family and the homelife, had become firmly entrenched in American gender ideals. Women had little external personal identity. Their positions were primarily determined by the achievements and social status of their husbands. Women, however, were not seen as inferior to men; instead, they were considered to be morally superior.

By the 1920s, such notions had gone out of fashion. Throughout the decade, restrictions upon what women could and could not do significantly loosened. Not only were American women voting for the first time, they also began exhibiting greater independence in other fashions, such as wearing short dresses, cutting their hair, wearing makeup, and smoking cigarettes. With their new appearances and with their daring actions, these young flappers struck at the roots of American tradition and morality. More and more young women modeled their behavior after freethinking artists, such as the writer Dorothy Parker and the dancer Isadora Duncan. They also talked with increasing knowledge about sex, parroting the theories of Sigmund Freud. Many women began seeking jobs outside of the home, which give them greater economic and social independence. A married woman, however, did not share in these freedoms. She was still expected to function solely in her role as homemaker, which remained the ideal of American womanhood.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Point of View
The story is told from a third-person, limited point of view. This means that readers see and hear only what one character sees and hears, and that readers are also privy to that character’s thoughts. In ‘‘The Difference,’’ all events are filtered through Margaret. Glasgow typically chooses one protagonist through which to view the action. This technique is particularly important to the development of the story—the reader can follow the transformation of Margaret’s thought processes, leading to a better understanding of why she acts as she acts, and thus more deeply feel what she is going through. The reader is with Margaret as she feels the terror at the idea of losing her husband, grapples with her ideals about love, comes to re-evaluate Rose’s relationship with George, makes the crucial decision to give her husband up, and finally faces failure even in that aspect—a failure that points up the failure of her worldview. This point of view—almost complete immersion in one character—is wellsuited to Glasgow’s investigations of the female consciousness.

Mood is closely associated with point of view in the story, for the prevailing mood of the story— which is closely tied to Margaret’s observations and thoughts—is melancholic, overdramatic, and at times, sentimental. The language of the narrator further emphasizes the moods, reiterating Margaret’s feelings. Phrases such as ‘‘rain-soaked world,’’ ‘‘the odour of melancholy,’’ and ‘‘grave-like mounds of leaves,’’ to only cull out a few, clearly set the scene upon which this mild drama plays out. The world in which Margaret now finds herself is dreary, fading, and disturbingly foreign. Margaret imbues herself with all the characteristics of a great tragic heroine because she has loved and lost. She consciously makes the decision to renounce her own happiness, thinking in terms of ‘‘sacrifice’’ and ‘‘self-surrender.’’ While Margaret certainly may feel that she is giving George the ‘‘supreme gift of her happiness,’’ there is no doubt that she chooses to do so under a somewhat theatrical guise. Unfortunately for Margaret, she comes to realize that the mood she has set for herself is not one shared by the other players. She recognizes her dramatization of the day’s events—she realizes that ‘‘she had overplayed life.’’

Satire is the use of humor, wit, or ridicule to criticize human nature and societal institutions, and indirect satire, as found in ‘‘The Difference’’ relies upon the ridiculous behavior of characters to make its point. Indeed, the satire in the story can be seen as so subtle and indirect that noted scholars have disagreed as to whether it actually exists. Applying the simple definition of satire, however, to George’s behavior at the end of the story makes a clear point for its presence. While at first George responds in a stereotypical manner-making excuses for the affair, tacitly blaming his wife, denying any emotional attachment to his mistress—he finds that his justifi- cation is making little headway with Margaret. Then his actions turn to the ridiculous, as foreshadowed by the narrative voice which remarks that ‘‘his face cleared [of gloomy severity] as if by magic.’’ Suddenly, George has come to the epiphany that Margaret is upset because she is tired and hungry. ‘‘You must try to eat a good dinner,’’ he says, and then lifts her in his arms to take her to the dining room. The implication is clearly that once Margaret has a full belly, her head will clear of all this nonsense. The final scene strikes a true note of humor, as the reader envisions Margaret lying deathlike in the arms of her husband, listlessly gazing out the window at the falling leaves.

Symbolism and Imagery
A number of symbols and images reinforce Margaret’s feelings throughout the story. The everpresent leaves and the color red are the most powerful symbols. The leaves primarily represent the passage of Margaret’s life as well as its continuity— she has stood at the same window autumn after autumn, watching the leaves fall from the trees. Even by the story’s close, when Margaret has undergone a life-altering transformation, the leaves continue to fall. However, this season the autumn leaves also represent something more sinister; the leaves outside of Rose’s villa are wet and remind Margaret of graves—they symbolize for Margaret the death of her marriage, her ideals, and her dreams. Further, as Margaret leaves Rose’s villa, the untidy leaves cluttering up the path and the yard also symbolize for her a sense of moral superiority, her adherence to the proper traditions and the proper standards—proper, of course, as defined by her peers.

The red flowers serve as a reminder to Margaret of the flamboyance of Rose, particularly in comparison to her own restrained personality. She interprets George’s approval of the red lilies in the library—‘‘Nice colour,’’ he says—as his disapproval of her and his predisposition for a woman like Rose. ‘‘You always liked red,’’ she replies, and then reminds him of how pale she always was. Unknown to George, she is drawing a comparison between two types of women as represented by Rose and herself. Upon meeting Rose, the younger woman supports Margaret’s expectations with her red hair and the ‘‘flame’’ in her face. Rose is equated with the color red, the color of passion.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

1920s: In 1925, 175,000 divorces take place— 1.5 per 1,000 total population. Obtaining a divorce when both parties do not agree to it is usually a difficult proposition. Most state courts only grant a divorce under fault grounds, such as adultery, alcoholism, desertion, or mental or physical cruelty. A person seeking a divorce on a fault ground must prove that the spouse committed the fault. A spouse also may contest the divorce. Thus, if a man wants a divorce in order to marry another women, firstly, he might have no grounds under which to get the divorce, and secondly, his wife might contest it.

1990s: In 1990 there were 1,182,000 divorces among the American population—4.7 per 1,000 total population. If this trend continues, younger Americans marrying for the first time have a 40 to 50 percent chance of divorcing in their lifetime. By the mid-1990s, around 18 million Americans have experienced a divorce. Despite these disheartening statistics, Americans continue to wholeheartedly support the idea of marriage and ‘‘until death do us part.’’ Ninety-six percent of Americans express a personal desire to marry, and only 8 percent of American women would prefer to remain single rather than marry. Additionally, almost three-quarters of Americans believe marriage is a lifelong commitment, one that should be broken only under extreme circumstances.

1920s: Cubism, dadaism, and surrealism are all new artistic movements that develop among European artists. Cubist painters, such as Pablo Picasso, create pictures out of geometric forms, shapes, and designs. Dadaism denounces all conventional standards, as epitomized by Marcel Duchamp’s painting of the Mona Lisa wearing a mustache. Surrealist painters, such as Salvador Dali, attempt to capture the unconscious and the world of dreams. A school of American painters focus on depicting the urban landscape in an exploration of how the machine age has influenced society. For instance, Edward Hopper’s paintings of New York City convey a sense of loneliness.

1990s: The field of visual arts offers many formats. Some artists implement modern technologies; video artists flash words and pictures across television screens. Artists mount largescale installations, sometimes recreating entire rooms or scenes, often using multiple media. Other pieces mounted throughout the decade are interactive, inviting the viewer to become a piece of the artwork.

1920s: Twenty-three percent of all American women aged 14 and older are employed outside of the home. In 1920, women make up 20 percent of the workforce, but few hold professional jobs; instead, women tend to employed as domestics and servants. Married women suffer from discrimination, earning as much as 30 percent less than their single counterparts and sometimes being forbidden from entering certain professions, such as schoolteaching.

1990s: By the beginning of the decade, around 48 million women, aged 16 and over, are employed. These women make up about 44 percent of the American workforce. Women continue to be treated unequally, however. They generally earn less money than men.

1920s: As they witness what they believe to the breakdown of moral standards, community, religious, and government groups begin a program of censorship to prevent the exposure of media featuring coarse language, radical political ideas, and discussions of sex. ‘‘Obscene’’ books, such as James Joyce’s novel Ulysses are banned from U.S. publication, and Hollywood sets up a review board to screen movie content.

1990s: The National Endowment for the Arts continues to be attacked by conservatives for funding artists whose work some consider to be obscene. The Recording Industry Association of America places warning labels on records that contain graphic sexual or violent lyrics. Some school and town libraries pull books from the shelves due to perceived improprieties.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Auchincloss, Louis. Pioneers and Caretakers, A Study of Nine American Women Novelists, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1961, pp. 56-91.

Lowrie, Rebecca. A review of The Shadowy Third and Other Stories, in the Literary Review, November 17, 1923, p. 256.

MacDonald, Edgar. ‘‘From Jordan’s End to Frenchman’s Bend: Ellen Glasgow’s Short Stories,’’ in The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2, 1996, pp. 319-332.

McDowell, Frederick P.W. ‘‘Ellen Glasgow,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9, Part II, Gale, 1981, pp. 44-65.

Raper, Julius Rowan. From the Sunken Garden, The Fiction of Ellen Glasgow, 1916-1945, Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Richards, Marion K. Ellen Glasgow’s Development as a Novelist, The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1971.

Wagner, Linda W. ‘‘Ellen Glasgow,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 12, Gale, 1982, pp. 213-226.

Wagner, Linda W. Ellen Glasgow, Beyond Convention, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.

Further Reading
Auchincloss, Louis. Pioneers and Caretakers, A Study of Nine American Women Novelists., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1961. A series of essays discussing important women writers of the late-19th through mid-20th centuries. Auchincloss examines the roles these writers play in preserving American tradition while expanding literary boundaries.

Godbold, E. Stanly, Jr. Ellen Glasgow and the Woman Within, Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1972. A complete biography of Ellen Glasgow that discusses her life and her work. Includes photographs.

Holman, C. Hugh. Three Modes of Southern Fiction, Ellen Glasgow, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1966. A discussion of how the works of Glasgow, Faulkner, and Wolfe present various aspects of life in the South and southern history, and conversely, how the southern culture affected the development of these novelists.

Inge, Thomas M., ed. Ellen Glasgow, Centennial Essays, Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1976. A collection of critical essays on Glasgow’s writings, including discussion of Glasgow’s novels and philosophical ideals.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Goodman, Susan. Ellen Glasgow. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

McDowell, Frederick P. W. Ellen Glasgow and the Ironic Art of Fiction. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.

Matthews, Pamela R. Ellen Glasgow and a Woman’s Traditions. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

The Mississippi Quarterly 49 (Spring, 1996).

Rouse, Blair. Ellen Glasgow. New York: Twayne, 1962.

Scura, Dorothy M., ed. Ellen Glasgow: New Perspectives. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.

Taylor, Welford Dunaway, and George C. Longest, eds. Regarding Ellen Glasgow: Essays for Contemporary Readers. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.

Wagner, Linda W. Ellen Glasgow: Beyond Convention. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide