Ellen Gilchrist Gilchrist, Ellen (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Ellen Gilchrist 1935–-

(Full name Ellen Louise Gilchrist) American short story writer, poet, and novelist.

The following entry presents criticism of Gilchrist's short fiction works from 1992 to 2002. For criticism of her short fiction published prior to 1992, see SSC, Volume 14.

Gilchrist is best known for short stories that chronicle the struggles of Southern women against the restrictive mores of upper-class society. She sets much of her fiction in New Orleans, describing the city's beauty and eccentricities in detail to contrast the idealistic hopes of her upper-class female protagonists with the harsh reality of their lives. These short stories have garnered favorable critical attention and have proved popular with readers over the years.

Biographical Information

Gilchrist was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Her early childhood was spent on the Hopedale Plantation, the home of her maternal grandfather. She eloped at nineteen years of age and had married four times before she earned her B.A. in philosophy from Millsaps College at the age of thirty-two. Gilchrist's experiences among Southern socialites during her twenties and a series of unsuccessful relationships often provide the basis for her fiction. Gilchrist did not begin writing until she was forty years old. After she began sending poems to poet and novelist Jim Whitehead, Gilchrist was asked to join his writing class at the University of Arkansas, which she accepted. In 1981 she published her first book of short fiction, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. She has continued to write short fiction and novels, receiving several awards and critical praise for her work.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Gilchrist's short fiction is praised for its realistic and sympathetic portrayal of unconventional Southern girls and women who engage in promiscuous or unorthodox behavior due to depression, a craving for romance, and the need to escape the rigid conventions of the class-conscious milieu. Although some reviewers consider Gilchrist's casual treatment of her protagonists' often immoral actions shallow or banal, others regard her heroines as simply pragmatic and jaded from their personal battles. These protagonists often reappear in different stories, allowing Gilchrist to examine various stages of their personal development. The women—Rhoda Manning, Nora Jane Whittington, and Crystal Manning—are often compared by critics to rebellious literary heroines such as Frankie Addams of Carson McCuller's The Member of the Wedding. Some commentators have perceived greater depth and maturation in the characters of her later works. For example, in several of the stories collected in The Age of Miracles (1995), Rhoda Manning is portrayed in midlife: divorced, but with her drinking problem under control and her failed relationships behind her. The Courts of Love (1996) follows the adventures of another Gilchrist heroine, Nora Jane Whittington. In 2000 Gilchrist published her Collected Stories, a group of thirty-four stories that she handpicked from her short fiction collections.

Critical Reception

While Gilchrist has been faulted by critics for weak endings and a lack of coherence in her short fiction collections, most have commented on the vitality of her writing style and her protagonists. She has been praised for her vivid use of colloquial language and dialogue, and critics have particularly noted her ability to capture in her stories the dreams and frustrations of adolescence. Detractors claim that her stories are too similar in subject matter and sometimes overwhelm the reader with digressions, minor details, and trivial dialogue. She is often discussed as a Southern writer, and her fiction has been compared to that of Katharine Anne Porter, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. Considered an energetic and appealing storyteller, Gilchrist's short fiction remains popular with reviewers and readers alike.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

In the Land of Dreamy Dreams 1981

Victory Over Japan 1985

Drunk with Love 1986

Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle 1989

I Cannot Get You Close Enough 1990

The Blue-Eyed Buddhist and Other Stories 1990

Rhoda: A Life in Stories 1995

The Age of Miracles 1995

The Courts of Love 1996

Flights of Angels 1998

The Cabal and Other Stories 2000

Collected Stories 2000

I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with My Daddy and Other Stories 2002

The Land Surveyor's Daughter (poetry) 1979

The Annunciation (novel) 1983

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

The Anna Papers (novel) 1988

Net of Jewels (novel) 1992

Anabasis: A Journey to the Interior (novel) 1994

Starcarbon: A Meditation on Love (novel) 1994

Sarah Conley (novel) 1997

Nicholas O. Pagan (essay date July 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Pagan, Nicholas O. “Ellen Gilchrist's and Clifton Taulbert's Portrayals of Glen Allan.” Notes on Mississippi Writers 24, no. 2 (July 1992): 59-65.

[In the following essay, Pagan contrasts Gilchrist's portrayal of Glen Allan, Mississippi, with that of Clifton Taulbert, contending that “Gilchrist's Glen Allan differs so greatly from Taulbert's that one barely recognizes them as the same town.”]

Ellen Gilchrist and Clifton Taulbert both grew up on the Mississippi Delta, a little more than a decade apart. The town of Glen Allan figures significantly in many of Gilchrist's stories and, as Taulbert's hometown, it is the setting for his book, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored. Glen Allan is located near the Issaquena-Washington County border on the Delta. The majority of the residents are black (over 80٪ in 1930 to about 60٪ in 1960). The Mississippi Blue Book reports that in the 40's and 50's, the period during which Gilchrist and Taulbert were growing up and about which they write, Glen Allan saw its population fluctuate. It had a post office and a telephone company in the early 40's and was rechartered around 1950. Yet it is not even mentioned in the 1960 Blue Book. Most of the money at that time was made in cotton, but there were also timber and oil profits to be made. This, then, is the real Glen Allan area: shifting population, mostly black, with whites owning most real estate and thus controlling the local economy. Yet Gilchrist's Glen Allan differs so greatly from Taulbert's that one barely recognizes them as the same town. The authors' strikingly different experiences and backgrounds lead them to portray life in Glen Allan with stereotyped characters who hold disparate values.

Both authors concur that the adults of the Delta believe firmly in their God. People credit God with successes and seek comfort from God. Taulbert says that to the black community of Glen Allan, the church “provided the framework for civic involvement, the backdrop for leadership, a safe place for social gatherings … Yes, the colored church became the sanctuary for our dreams and the closet for our secrets” (105-106). While Taulbert's God will intervene favorably in the lives of his followers, bringing painless deaths and good jobs, Gilchrist portrays God as more punitive, taking the lives of friends and relatives and punishing people for their sins. While supporting characters remain faithful, Gilchrist's protagonists turn away from God. Says Matille in “Summer, an Elegy”, “I don't like God anyway. If God's so good why did he let Uncle Robert die. And why did he make alligators and snakes and send my daddy off to fight the Japs. If God's so good why'd he let the Jews kill his own little boy” (In the Land of Dreamy Dreams 166).

The two authors seem to agree that children should be “protected … from the harsher realities …” of life around them (Taulbert 11). For Taulbert, this protection meant having his relatives teach him how to live under segregation. His great-grandfather “would pull me up just in time so we could step aside and let the white people pass” (21). His great-aunt taught him how to avoid the anger of the straw boss in the field. Also, when he saw a poster of Adlai Stevenson and asked who it was, his mother kept him from discussing politics by chastising him, “Boy, don't let no white folk hear you say nothing about that man. That's white folks' business. We ain't got nothing to do with it” (86). The protection also included discipline, what Taulbert calls “the iron finger of love” (30). His great-grandmother supervised his movie attendance so he would not slip into the neighboring juke joint. Taulbert saw this discipline as encouragement as he grew up and left Glen Allan.

When the children in Gilchrist's stories are protected from life's realities, the children become spoiled and monstrous. They throw temper tantrums and hurl insulting names on those around them. In the short story “Revenge,” when Rhoda throws a fit because she cannot play with the older boys, the cook bribes her with pound cake and her grandmother offers to take her to visit her friend. She refuses. “I don't want to play with Miss Ann Wentzel. … I hate Miss Ann Wentzel. She's fat and she calls me a Yankee” (In the Land of Dreamy Dreams 113). She then throws a second tantrum. She is not punished, but indulged by being taken off to sob herself “to sleep in a sea of down pillows” (113). Unsupervised and influenced by the way adults use sex, teen-aged cousins become lovers and eight-year-olds have sex with each other. Adults are often portrayed as impotent. In The Annunciation, Amanda's uncle complains that the kitchen help should quit feeding Amanda so she would not be such a picky eater. A servant replies, “Can't stop her. She too fast for me” (8). The uncle's response is to leave the house in anger, rather than to try to correct the situation. When Gilchrist's adults do enforce rules, they do so to teach gender roles. The children's rebellion is minimal then, as though they know that this is important. Eight year old Guy cries and vomits as he learns to clean still-warm birds, as the grown men do (8). In “Revenge,” despite her two tantrums, Rhoda may not play with the older boys and must content herself with preparing to be the bridesmaid in her cousin's wedding.

The early discipline of the children in Taulbert's story helped foster a love of education and a strong work ethic among them....

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Donna Seaman (review date 1 April 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Seaman, Donna. Review of The Age of Miracles, by Ellen Gilchrist. Booklist 91, no. 15 (1 April 1995): 1377.

[In the following favorable assessment of The Age of Miracles, Seaman finds Gilchrist to be a “marvelously energetic storyteller.”]

Gilchrist's reputation was built in great part on her short story collections, including In the Land of the Dreamy Dreams (1985). Now, after a string of novels ending with Starcarbon (1994), she has returned to stories [in The Age of Miracles], a form she handles with aplomb. A marvelously energetic storyteller, Gilchrist infuses her perfectly sculpted tales with the power of personality and the dichotomy of emotions, and her women are a riot: willful, unapologetic, and outspoken. Each new story is acute and captivating, but those starring her recurrent heroine, Rhoda Katherine Manning, are priceless. Elegant, independent, and successful, Rhoda is approaching 60 with unwavering nerve, delighted with the freedom age brings. When Gilchrist isn't occupied with Rhoda, she's telling tales about male New Orleans poets and the rich women who pursue them, the aftermath of a suicide, or how a woman reacts when her grown children kidnap her to save her from the horrors of a facelift. As Gilchrist chronicles her characters' struggle to get what they need out of life in spite of setbacks and tragedies, she warms us with her flinty humor and then leaves us breathless with her insights into sadness and the knotted bonds of love.

Susan Salter Reynolds (review date 30 July 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Age of Miracles, by Ellen Gilchrist. Los Angeles Times Book Review (30 July 1995): 6.

[In the following positive review, Reynolds praises the humorous and entertaining characters portrayed in the stories of The Age of Miracles.]

Many of the characters in these stories [The Age of Miracles] speak so quickly and candidly, seem so robust and healthy that they look back over their shoulders at the panting, slightly down-at-the-heels, mired-in-doubt reader now and again and call out “Get the picture?” Rhoda Manning, magazine writer, appears in several of the stories. She lives on Xanax and Evian and Donna Karan. Marriage, sex, divorce, solitude and company are all strangely equal in her life. “You figure it out,” she says in “A Statue of Aphrodite.” “Women and their desire to pleasure wealthy, self-made men. Think about it sometime if you get stuck in traffic in the rain.” “I was not in love with anyone,” she muses in another story, called “Paris,” “and I did not want to be. ‘BOND NO MORE’ it said on notes I had scattered around my house. … I was free to let the whole world be my lover.” Equanimity and humor, that's what the characters in these stories have in common. The circumstances they find themselves in are stranger than truth and perfect for fiction, perhaps the most memorable is “Madison at 69th, a Fable,” the tale of three children who kidnap their mother and slip her a mickey to prevent her from getting a face-lift. “Think of how tired she must have been,” says one daughter, waiting for her mother to wake up, “She's just worn out with watching us grow up.” “I love her,” says another, “but she's still a bitch.”

D. R. MacDonald (review date 3 September 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: MacDonald, D. R. “More Dreamy Dreams.” Book World—The Washington Post 25 (3 September 1995): 6.

[In the following review, MacDonald notes the inconsistent quality of the Rhoda stories in The Age of Miracles.]

“You might have heard of me,” Rhoda Manning says in “A Wedding in Jackson,” one of the stories in this collection [The Age of Miracles]. “I'm a famous scandal in some circles in the South.” A familiar figure in Ellen Gilchrist's fiction, from In the Land of Dreamy Dreams to Victory Over Japan, from precocious brat to noted writer, Rhoda at her best has a brassy wit, a kind of overbearing Southern charm. Now 50ish,...

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Hart Williams (review date 16 February 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Williams, Hart. Review of The Courts of Love, by Ellen Gilchrist. Book World—The Washington Post 27 (16 February 1997): 4.

[In the following positive assessment of The Courts of Love, Williams deems Gilchrist “a national cultural treasure.”]

The Courts of Love lies somewhere between a novel and a story collection. Two-thirds of the narrative consists of a cycle of interlinked tales focusing on recurring characters: Nora Jane and Freddy Harwood, their fraternal-twin daughters, Freddy's best friend, Nieman, and their families. This is the sort of writing that almost invariably seems to end up much as a canvas painted completely black...

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Virginia Quarterly Review (review date fall 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Courts of Love, by Ellen Gilchrist. Virginia Quarterly Review 73, no. 4 (fall 1997): 130.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic provides a favorable assessment of The Courts of Love.]

The one novella and nine stories that make up this collection [The Courts of Love] simply show a master at work. In this her 14th book, Gilchrist will be courting new fans and satisfying old ones. The novella, Nora Jane and Company continues to chart the travails of Nora Jane, who first posed as a nun in a robbery and later managed to birth twin girls from different fathers. One shows up unexpectedly in a bizarre twist that opens up the...

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Brad Hooper (review date August 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hooper, Brad. Review of Flights of Angels, by Ellen Gilchrist. Booklist 94, no. 22 (August 1998): 1922.

[In the following review, Hooper applauds the humorous and poignant stories comprising Flights of Angels.]

Gilchrist is so amiable that it's no wonder that she is one of the most popular American short story writers today. She just has to be a friendly person, given that her fiction is so delectably yarny. It's back-porch material; when reading her stories, one can practically hear them being told to an appreciative audience as the sun drifts down to the horizon. Her latest collection [Flights of Angels], will not disappoint her numerous fans....

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Merle Rubin (review date 8 November 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Taking Wing.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (8 November 1998): 10.

[In the following review, Rubin asserts that “while some of the stories may seem a little too pat and some of the narrators a little too pleased with themselves, Flights of Angels is on the whole a satisfying collection.”]

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...

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Brad Hooper (review date 1 December 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hooper, Brad. Review of The Cabal and Other Stories, by Ellen Gilchrist. Booklist 96, no. 7 (1 December 1999): 661.

[In the following review, Hooper offers a favorable assessment of The Cabal and Other Stories.]

Gilchrist demonstrates in her latest collection of short fiction [The Cabal and Other Stories] not only that she is a remarkably adept storyteller but also that the novella, particularly in her hands, is a highly effective literary form—one that offers a more involved and involving plot and more complete character development than one finds in short fiction while at the same time more tightly structured than most full-length novels. Half...

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Margaret Donovan Bauer (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

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

[In the following essay, Bauer contends that “the allusions to and parallels with works by Hemingway throughout Gilchrist's work reveal, in addition to Gilchrist's development of story cycles and composite personalities in the tradition of Hemingway, the deconstruction of the Hemingway hero.”]

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...

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Susan Salter Reynolds (review date 2 April 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Reynolds, Susan Salter. “Discoveries.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (2 April 2000): 15.

[In the following review, Reynolds faults Gilchrist's use of detail in The Cabal and Other Stories.]

It's all in the details, they tell you in creative writing 101. What they might forget to tell you is that writing effectively sometimes means relinquishing control. Like characters and plot, details rebel if they are too tightly manipulated by the writer. For extremely talented and experienced writers like Ellen Gilchrist, the dance with detail—background or foreground, minor or plot-shaking, descriptive or context providing—is perilous. In The Cabal and the...

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Donna Seaman (review date 15 September 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Seaman, Donna. Review of Collected Stories, by Ellen Gilchrist. Booklist 97, no. 2 (15 September 2000): 188.

[In the following review, Seaman provides a laudatory assessment of Collected Stories.]

Gilchrist's celebrated writing life began with a book of short stories, In the Land of the Dreamy Dreams (1984), and her second collection, Victory Over Japan won the 1985 National Book Award. She has switched back and forth between novels and short stories ever since, and her dulcet yet tensile voice has become an integral part of American literature. Gilchrist has now selected 34 of her favorite stories from seven collections [Collected...

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Susan Salter Reynolds (review date 24 December 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Reynolds, Susan Salter. “Discoveries.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (24 December 2000): 11.

[In the following favorable review of Collected Stories, Reynolds outlines the strengths of Gilchrist's short fiction writing.]

“A full moon was caught like a kite in the pecan trees across the river.” Mysterious, beautiful, ominous, rich, perfect. “The low-hanging clouds pushed against each other in fat cosmic orgasms.” Heavy-handed, jarring, distracting, mixed beyond usefulness. This is why you buy short-story collections by writers you've enjoyed: to see the many variations in their writing to get a sense of their evolution sometimes over decades,...

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Penelope Mesic (review date January 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Mesic, Penelope. Review of Collected Stories, by Ellen Gilchrist. Book (January 2001): 69.

[In the following review, Mesic provides a favorable assessment of Collected Stories.]

In one of Gilchrist's sublimely mellow short stories [in Collected Stories], a resourceful housemaid describes meeting the teen-aged son of her employer, a wealthy woman just married for the second time: “‘I'm Traceleen,’ I said. ‘I'm going to be the maid.’ ‘I'm King,’ he said. ‘I'm going to be the stepchild.’” This brief exchange, wryly funny and straightforward, is absolutely typical of Gilchrist's characters, who, whatever their shortcomings, always...

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Susan Millar Williams (review date April 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Williams, Susan Millar. “Guilty Pleasures.” Women's Review of Books 18, no. 7 (April 2001): 19.

[In the following favorable assessment of Collected Stories, Williams offers a thematic overview of Gilchrist's short fiction.]

I've always been a fan of Ellen Gilchrist. Partly it's just that the places she loves are also the places I love—San Francisco, New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta and above all the weird and wonderful little university town of Fayetteville, Arkansas. “Fateville,” as one of Gilchrist's characters calls it. When I lived in Fayetteville, just a couple of years before Gilchrist came there to study in the famous MFA program...

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Margaret Donovan Bauer (essay date winter 2001-2002)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Bauer, Margaret Donovan. “Ellen Gilchrist's Women Who Would Be Queens (and Those Who Would Dethrone Them).” Mississippi Quarterly 55, no. 1 (winter 2001-2002): 117-31.

[In the following essay, Bauer investigates Gilchrist's portrayal of women in her fiction.]

“There is an old gorgeous man living right here in Jackson, Mississippi, that I have been loving and fighting with and showing off for since I was born. … My father.”1

“It's that old daddy. … That's who we love.”2

My study of Ellen Gilchrist's fiction has illuminated for...

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Donna Seaman (review date 15 May 2002)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Seaman, Donna. Review of I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with My Daddy, by Ellen Gilchrist. Booklist 98, no. 18 (15 May 2002): 1555.

[In the following review, Seaman provides a positive assessment of I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with My Daddy.]

Gilchrist's most captivating recurring character, the classy and indomitable Rhoda Manning, starred in many of the best offerings in Gilchrist's altogether splendid Collected Stories (2000). Now more fascinating than ever at age 65, Rhoda rules this potent new collection [I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with My Daddy], too, as she reflects on her contentious past, especially her complicated relationships...

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Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 May 2002)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with My Daddy, by Ellen Gilchrist. Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 10 (15 May 2002): 684.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic offers a favorable review of I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with My Daddy and Other Stories.]

Rhoda Manning is resurrected once again in a two-part collection [I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with My Daddy].

The first half is comprised of Rhoda stories, sure to please fans of the many already-existing volumes of such (Collected Stories, 2000, etc.). The title story is told from a very young Rhoda's point of view on her first abortive hunting trip, while an older...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Bauer, Margaret Donovan. The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999, 211 p.

Full-length study of Gilchrist's fiction.

Cole, Diane. Review of The Age of Miracles, by Ellen Gilchrist. New York Times Book Review (21 May 1995): 32.

Offers a mixed review of The Age of Miracles.

Dieckmann, Katherine. “Recombinant DNA.” New York Times Book Review (17 December 2000): 8.

Contends that “few writers are as adept at spinning funny, slyly insightful tales that radiate outward like tiny satellites, orbiting a fictional...

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