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.
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.
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.