Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

Though it was her fourth published novel, THE GREAT MEADOW had been slowly developing in Elizabeth Madox Roberts’ mind for many years. She was descended from pioneers who had settled in the Kentucky wilderness, and she wished to commemorate the part such settlers had played in transforming the great meadowland beyond the mountains into homes for themselves. She carefully considered theme, characters, style, and form. The result is a novel laid in the period of the American Revolution and the settlement of land west of the southern Appalachians, with such historical personages as Daniel Boone, James Harrod, and George Rogers Clark playing subsidiary roles. The progress of the war was briefly reported from time to time as something happening far away, except for Indian raids and skirmishes between white settlers and red men urged into battle by the British.

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The dominant theme of the evolution of order out of chaos is developed in two movements: Diony Hall, an introspective but physically active young girl, seeks to control the welter of emotions and thoughts within herself as she matures into a young woman, and to find and understand the part she was intended to play in life by the great Author of Nature. She becomes a part of the other movement, that of the settlers who brought order and civilization into what had been raw wilderness. Diony is the only fully developed character in the novel, the only one seen from within as well as without. The two movements are intermeshed as the author alternately reveals Diony’s thoughts and feelings and then shifts to the physical action of the story that involves Diony with the many other characters.

In style, the novel blends poetry and prose. Music abounds in ballads, hymns, the sounds of Thomas Hall’s anvil, bird songs, the bells on horses’ necks, and fiddle music for dancing. Images of weaving suggest the making of a historical tapestry (“the words and the wool were spun together”). Archaic locutions and dialectal words (“blowth,” “frighted”) give an eighteenth century folk flavor.

The principal weakness of THE GREAT MEADOW is the use of the Enoch Arden theme at the end when Berk returns after his long absence. For most readers, however, this ending may seem acceptable, particularly since Berk saved himself from being eaten by his captors through a convincing argument that his “thinking part” gave him his strength. This is a corollary of Diony’s belief in “the power of reason over the wild life of the earth.”

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