Ellen Gilchrist Gilchrist, Ellen (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ellen Gilchrist 1935-

American short story writer, novelist, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Gilchrist's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 34 and 48.

Gilchrist is best known for her short stories that chronicle the decline of the Southern aristocracy. Much of her fiction is set in New Orleans, a city she describes in gritty detail to contrast the idealistic hopes of her upper-class female protagonists with the harsh reality of their lives. Gilchrist's characters often reappear in different works, allowing her to examine various stages of their personal development. Gilchrist is consistently praised for her use of vivid language and dialogue, and critics have particularly noted her ability to capture the dreams and frustrations typically experienced during adolescence.

Biographical Information

Gilchrist was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1935. She spent her childhood on the Hopewell Plantation, the home of her maternal grandfather. Gilchrist left the family home at nineteen when she eloped. She subsequently divorced and married three more times before the age of thirty-two. She received her B.A. in philosophy from Milsaps College in 1967. In the 1970s, Gilchrist tried her hand at poetry and joined poet and novelist Jim Whitehead's writing class at the University of Arkansas. Gilchrist wrote poems and stories for various periodicals before publishing her first collection of short fiction, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981), with a small university press. The book caught the attention of the reading public and the literary world alike and earned her a contract with Little, Brown for another collection of short stories and a novel. She won the American Book Award for fiction for Victory over Japan (1984) and has written several other short story collections and novels, as well as a collection of essays.

Major Works

The stories in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams center on wealthy Southern women who escape the restrictions of their upper-class lives through unorthodox, sometimes destructive behavior. “Revenge” focuses on Rhoda Manning, a young girl who is stifled by the constraints placed on women in southern society. She is not allowed to use the pole-vaulting pit built by her brother and her male cousins because it is considered unbecoming for a girl to develop muscles. Instead she is lured to the more feminine pursuit of playing a role in her cousin's wedding. At the end of the story she rebels, triumphantly ripping off her formal dress after the wedding and vaulting across the pit. Gilchrist's first novel, The Annunciation (1983), follows the life of Amanda McCamey from her childhood on the Mississippi Delta to her married life in the familiar milieu of aristocratic New Orleans, and eventually to an artists' commune in the Ozarks. Some of the characters from In the Land of Dreamy Dreams also reappear in Gilchrist's later collection Victory over Japan, which traces the lives of several eccentric women. In this collection, the character of Rhoda Manning returns in “The Lower Garden District Free Gravity Mule Blight or Rhoda, a Fable.” In this story, Rhoda is middle-aged, recently divorced, and struggling with poverty and loneliness. She attempts to solve her problems by defrauding her insurance company and seducing her insurance representative. Other previously used characters also reappear in the stories of Drunk with Love (1986). In addition to exploring the lives of her female protagonists as they rebel against Southern social mores, this volume deals with greater social issues, such as interracial love affairs in “Memphis” and “The Emancipator.” Another story, “The Blue-Eyed Buddhist,” concludes in a manner atypical of the standard Gilchrist tale—the protagonist ends her life in a grand, self-sacrificing gesture. The novel The Anna Papers (1988) relates the experiences of Anna Hand, a dying author who wants to write her family's story in order to leave a legacy for the future. Although Anna is childless, motherhood and family are central to the narrative in this book. Net of Jewels (1992) involves Rhoda Manning once again, this time focusing on her adolescence and young adulthood. The book examines Rhoda's rebellious relationship with her parents and the Southern belle ideal. Starcarbon (1994) returns to the chronicles of the Hand family, who appeared in The Anna Papers. This time Olivia de Haviland Hand (Anna's niece) becomes the protagonist. Olivia is living in Oklahoma and struggling to reconcile her Cherokee roots with the Hand's Southern aristocracy.

Critical Reception

Gilchrist is more often praised for the style than the substance of her work. Victoria Jenkins remarks, “Ellen Gilchrist's writing tumbles and spills off the page, seemingly without effort, like a voluble cousin breathlessly bringing you up to date on the liaisons and adventures of various members of a sprawling family.” Many critics are enamored with Gilchrist's rebellious female heroines since they break the fictional mold of the typical Southern belle. Jeannie Thompson and Anita Miller Garner state, “Gilchrist captures the flavor and essence of her region without drowning in its idiom. She does not diminish her work by parroting already established Southern voices or depending upon stereotypes of landscapes and character.” However, some reviewers desire more from Gilchrist's protagonists and argue that they are in no way heroic. Such commentators complain that, barring a few exceptions, Gilchrist's characters do nothing to change the wretchedness of their lives. Dorie Larue laments, “[Gilchrist's] characters are more thought about than thought through.” Generally, Gilchrist's short fiction is more favorably received than her novels, although her work is increasingly becoming a subject for critical study.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Land Surveyor's Daughter (poetry) 1979

In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (short stories) 1981

The Annunciation (novel) 1983

Victory over Japan (short stories) 1984

Drunk with Love (short stories) 1986

Falling through Space: The Journals of Ellen Gilchrist (essays) 1987

The Anna Papers (novel) 1988

Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle (short stories) 1989

I Cannot Get You Close Enough (short stories) 1990

Net of Jewels (novel) 1992

Starcarbon: A Meditation on Love (novel) 1994

The Age of Miracles (short stories) 1995

Nora Jane and Company (novel) 1997

Flight of Angels (short stories) 1998

Jeanie Thompson and Anita Miller Garner (essay date Fall 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Miracle of Realism: The Bid for Self-Knowledge in the Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 101-14.

[In the following essay, Thompson discusses where the search for self-knowledge leads several of Gilchrist's protagonists.]

Few writers can achieve with a first collection of short stories published by a university press the kind of instant popular success and critical acclaim Ellen Gilchrist won with In the Land of Dreamy Dreams: Not only did it immediately sell out its first printing, the collection was literally the talk of New Orleans, selling many copies by word of mouth and winning for its author...

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Margaret Jones Bolsterli (essay date Spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ellen Gilchrist's Characters and the Southern Woman's Experience: Rhoda Manning's Double Bind and Anna Hand's Creativity,” in New Orleans' Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 7-9.

[Bolsterli is Professor of English and Director of the Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. She has written several books on the South. In the following essay, she discusses how Gilchrist presents the Southern woman's experience through her characters Rhoda Manning and Anna Hand.]

Since the experiences of any powerless class are considered less interesting than those of the powerful, one of the differences between the...

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J. Randal Woodland (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “New People in the Old Museum of New Orleans: Ellen Gilchrist, Sheila Bosworth, and Nancy Lemann,” in Louisiana Women Writers: New Essays and a Comprehensive Bibliography, edited by Dorothy H. Brown and Barbara C. Ewell, Louisiana State University Press, 1992, pp. 195-210.

[In the following essay, Woodland discusses how the literary tradition of New Orleans is changed and how New Orleans' society is portrayed in the fiction of Ellen Gilchrist, Sheila Bosworth, and Nancy Lemann.]

Experiences, reminiscences, episodes, picked up as only women know how to pick them up from other women’s lives,—or other women’s destinies, as they prefer...

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Margaret D. Bauer (essay date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Evolution of Caddy: An Intertextual Reading of The Sound and the Fury and Ellen Gilchrist's The Annunciation,” in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 40-51.

[In the following essay, Bauer asserts that the fate of Amanda McCamey in Gilchrist's The Annunciation exhibits a more optimistic view of the future of the Southerner than the fate of Caddy Compson in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.]

Certain parallels between the works of Ellen Gilchrist and William Faulkner might suggest to the reader that the South has not changed very much during the last century, though writers apparently continue to see...

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Dorie Larue (essay date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Progress and Prescription: Ellen Gilchrist's Southern Belles,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 69-78.

[In the following essay, Larue traces the common features of Gilchrist's female protagonists and complains that they take no positive action to better their own lives.]

Kathryn Lee Seidel describes the southern belle in the American novel as young, unmarried, skilled in the equestrian arts and in music, and the daughter of a landed (therefore aristocratic) father. Exuberant, vain and naive, she feels she deserves a “gallant cavalier” (10). Certainly that characterization of the southern belle appears in varying disguises in the...

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Trev Broughton (review date 1 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Too Many Hands,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4761, July 1, 1994, p. 21.

[In the following review, Broughton complains about the pretentiousness of the main characters in Gilchrist's Starcarbon.]

There are forty-five names mapped on to the family tree that prefaces this novel: forty-five characters, from five generations of Hands and Mannings. Readers who have followed Ellen Gilchrist’s saga of the Deep South will have a head start on newcomers and will recognize Olivia de Havilland Hand as the half-Native American niece, rescued by her novelist aunt, Anna (of The Anna Papers and elsewhere), and restored, in I Cannot Get You Close...

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Julia Glass (review date 11 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Rough-Edged Romantic,” in Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1995, p. 6.

[In the following review, Glass discusses the world Gilchrist creates in her fiction and asserts that the character of Rhoda is the dominating force behind Gilchrist's collection The Age of Miracles.]

Most fiction writers create in each of the stories they tell an autonomous world, filled with characters and settings that exist nowhere else. The various worlds they make may be neighborly, like planets in a single solar system, but each is unique. Ellen Gilchrist, however, delights in re-exploring the same world again and again. In nearly a dozen novels and story collections, Gilchrist has...

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Bharat Tandon (review date 20 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dressed for Success in the South,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4829, p. 23.

[In the following review, Tandon argues that there are profound moments in Gilchrist's The Age of Miracles, but that it is not her best work.]

Ellen Gilchrist, as readers of her stories will have noticed, has a gift for moving meticulously around the textures and ramifications of an event; and while her novels are always entertaining, this is a gift which lends itself more naturally to the short story, a form where epiphany is distilled and compressed. The Age of Miracles is a welcome return to Gilchrist’s Southern landscapes and charmingly fallible...

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Tonya Stremlau Johnson (essay date Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ellen Gilchrist's Rhoda: Managing the Fiction,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 4, Summer, 1997, pp. 87-96.

[In the following essay, Johnson studies Gilchrist's character Rhoda and her desire to seek acceptance from society while at the same time attempting to free herself from its constraints.]

Ellen Gilchrist has said that in writing she has “finally found a socially desirable use for the fact that I talk too much” (Lyons 83). This statement is not only revealing of Gilchrist but also of her white female characters, who want to establish their independence from the social norm while also being accepted within that same society. The image for such...

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Katy Emck (review date 14 November 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Patterns People Make,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4937, November 14, 1997, p. 24.

[In the following review, Emck lauds Gilchrist's novel Nora Jane and Company as “a sweet and enlightened novel in celebration of improbable love.”]

Ellen Gilchrist has written a sweet and enlightened novel in celebration of improbable love. Nora Jane and Company traces the randomness of human destiny in a story composed of brightly signposted coincidences, peppered with reflections on DNA and the vastness of the cosmos. “Nineteen ninety-five and we are still in orbit. Keep your fingers crossed”, says the prologue.

But this is...

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Merle Rubin (review date 8 November 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Taking Wing,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 8, 1998, p. 10.

[In the following review, Rubin asserts that Gilchrist's fiction has been somewhat inconsistent, but that her short stories seem to be stronger, including those in her collection Flights of Angels.]

Novelist, poet and short-story writer Ellen Gilchrist made an impressive literary debut in 1981 with her book of short stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. Her 1984 collection, Victory over Japan, won that year’s National Book Award for fiction. Since then, more than a dozen books—story collections, novels, autobiographical nonfiction—have appeared: a mixed bag, in...

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Margaret Donovan Bauer (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tradition and an Individual Talent,” in her The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist, University Press of Florida, 1999, pp. 1-22.

[In the following essay, Bauer analyzes the development of Gilchrist's story cycle and her relationship to the short-story tradition.]

No poet, no artist of any art has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.

T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”


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Margaret Donovan Bauer (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gilchrist's Composite Personality and Story Cycle: Transforming Ernest Hemingway,” in her The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist, University Press of Florida, 1999, pp. 23-56.

[In the following essay, Bauer analyzes Hemingway's influence on Gilchrist's work, especially her story cycle and her use of a composite personality.]

Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.

Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision”


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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bain, Robert. “Ellen Gilchrist.” In Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain, pp. 169–84. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Presents a brief overview of Gilchrist's life and career, and traces both her major themes and critical response to her work.

Jenkins, Victoria. “Charmed Loves.” Chicago Tribune Books (22 May 1994): 5.

In this review, Jenkins discusses the techniques Gilchrist employed in Starcarbon.

MacDonald, D. R. “More Dreamy Dreams.” Washington Post Book World 25, No. 36 (3 September 1995): 6.


(The entire section is 222 words.)