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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1666

First published: 1901

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Locale: Rural Scotland

Principal Characters:

John Gourlay, a wealthy merchant

Young John, his son

Mrs. Gourlay, his slovenly wife

James Wilson, Gourlay’s competitor

The Story:

John Gourlay was...

(The entire section contains 1666 words.)

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First published: 1901

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Locale: Rural Scotland

Principal Characters:

John Gourlay, a wealthy merchant

Young John, his son

Mrs. Gourlay, his slovenly wife

James Wilson, Gourlay’s competitor

The Story:

John Gourlay was proud of his twelve wagons and his many business successes, but mostly he was proud of his House with the Green Shutters. Into it he had put all the frustration he felt for his lack of friends, his slovenly wife, and his weakling son. Gourlay’s was a pride of insolence. He would have more than his neighbors, his betters; he would make them acknowledge him as their superior. Gourlay had not found a golden touch. He had simply worked hard, turning every shilling into pounds by any method open to him. In the process, he became mean, stingy, boastful, and evil.

His son John had inherited all of his characteristics except his courage. As a schoolboy, he was constantly ridiculed by his mates and took refuge in boasting of his father’s wealth and power. He was no good with his fists, and his only revenge after a sound drubbing was to tell his father. Gourlay hated his son almost as much as he hated everyone else, but he could not let his son be laughed at by the sons of his enemies. Therefore, John was avenged by the father who despised him.

Gourlay also hated his wife. She had once been a laughing, pretty lass but had become a slattern and a bore whose son was her only reason for living. On him she lavished all the love denied her by her husband. There was one daughter. She was ignored by her mother and favored by her father, each parent taking the opposite point of view from the other.

The whole village bowed to Gourlay, even while they prayed that he would one day meet his match. They were not to be disappointed. James Wilson returned to the village with money he had earned during his fifteen years’ absence. One of the first to meet Wilson was Gourlay. When Wilson had left years before, Gourlay had been then, as now, the big man in the town. Had Gourlay said a kind word or given one bit of praise for the success of his former acquaintance, Wilson would have been flattered and would have become his friend; but Gourlay was not such a man. He immediately ridiculed Wilson and laughed at the idea that he could be a success at anything. Wilson developed a hatred that was to bring the insolent Gourlay to ruin.

Wilson used his money to set up a general store, which he stocked with many items the villagers had formerly had to send away for and pay Gourlay to haul for them. He also delivered items to neighboring towns and farms. Then he started a regular carting service, cutting prices to get business from Gourlay, just as Gourlay had done to his competitors. The townspeople were glad to patronize Wilson in order to get back at Gourlay for his years of dominance and insolence. Indeed, they even gave Wilson new suggestions for expanding his trade. Gourlay’s downfall started slowly, but soon it became a landslide. The peasants began to stand up to the old man and to laugh openly at him. Gourlay’s vows of vengeance were empty talk.

Gourlay turned to his son as his only hope. When Wilson’s son went away to high school, John was sent, even though he had no head for books and no ambition. John played truant frequently and was a braggart and a coward as before, but his father still had power enough to keep him in school and in money. Somehow, the boy managed to graduate. Wilson sent his son to the university. Gourlay decided that John must go too. Never was a boy more miserable, for he knew he was not suited for advanced study. Gourlay hoped to make the lad a minister; his hope was to recoup some respect, if not money, for the family.

At the university, John found little stimulation for his sluggish mind. He had one high spot in his career, indeed in his whole life, when he won a prize for an essay. Since that was the first honor he ever won, he swaggered and boasted about it for months. Because of the prize, he also won his first and only word of praise from his father. In his second term, John fell to his own level and became a drunken sot. Books were too much for him, and people scorned him. The bottle was his only friend.

While John was stumbling through his second term at the university, Gourlay’s fortunes reached their lowest ebb. The House with the Green Shutters was mortgaged heavily; all Gourlay’s other assets had been lost in wild speculations to recoup his fortunes. Nevertheless, Gourlay still pinned his hopes on the son he had always hated. John would save the family name, the lost fortune, the House. When Gourlay learned that John had been expelled for drunkenness and insubordination and heard that the whole town knew of the disgrace through a letter of young Wilson to his father, the news was too much for the old man. He returned to the House with the Green Shutters like a madman, as indeed he was. The first sight that greeted him was John, who had sneaked into town in the darkness. Like a cat toying with a mouse, Gourlay tortured his son. He pretended to consider him a great man, a hero. He peered at him from all angles, waited on him with strong whiskey, and called him a fine son, a credit to the family. John cowardly rushed from the house in terror, followed by the screams of his mother and sister and the howls of his father. Then his false courage returned, and he went back into the house after fortifying himself with more whiskey. Picking up a large poker that had been one of his father’s prideful purchases, John swung at his father and crushed his head.

The mother and sister convinced the authorities that Gourlay, falling from a ladder and striking his head, had died accidentally; but John was lost. For days, he was haunted by red eyes glaring at him out of space, by unknown things coming to get him. Dependent upon him for their livelihood, his mother and sister tried to get him out of his madness, but nothing soothed him except whiskey, and that only briefly. One day he asked his mother for money, bought his last bottle of whiskey and a vial of poison, and ended his wretched existence.

The mother and daughter were completely alone now and aware that even the house must go to the creditors. Although they were both dying of cancer and consumption, they divided the rest of the poison and accelerated their union with Gourlay and John in death. The pride, the lust, and the greed were gone. The House with the Green Shutters had claimed them all.

Critical Evaluation:

George Douglas Brown’s reputation rests on this single novel, THE HOUSE WITH THE GREEN SHUTTERS. Born at Ochiltree in Scotland to a poor family, he managed to attend Glasgow University and Oxford. In 1895, he went to London as a freelance writer. Not until 1901 with THE HOUSE WITH THE GREEN SHUTTERS did he win recognition. The novel was praised by Andrew Lang and was well received in England and the United States. His royalties in the summer of 1902 brought him the only financial ease he ever knew, but in August of the year, he suddenly died.

This one great novel is modeled on classical Greek tragedy. It is a vivid picture of cottage life in a Scottish village with finely drawn characters and realistic atmosphere; the peasant humor running through the book has been compared to that of Hardy. The citizens of Barbie are preoccupied with scandal when they are not grubbing for an existence. Beyond work, their concerns are narrow and petty; they are malicious, often from mere boredom. The villagers act as a Greek Chorus, standing around the square commenting on the principal characters and the life in the village. They also fill in background for the reader.

The author places a heavy emphasis upon “character.” If a person is weak, he is doomed. As hubris might cause the fate of a Greek tragic hero, so stupidity or moral weakness causes the fate of these Scottish villagers. John Gourlay is proud, ambitious, and eager to make a big showing; his house is a symbol for him of his place and dignity. Nevertheless, he is a stupid man and is easily provoked. Understanding nothing, he is able to sneer at everything. His son cannot build upon his first success at college. Young Gourlay is morally weak and lazy and must inevitably come into conflict with his father.

The relentless realism of the narrative, detailing every grimy inch of the town and the house and mercilessly describing the characters as if they are under a microscope might be too much for some readers. (Some critics of 1901 thought the grimness of the tale overdone, while others compared its effect with that of Balzac’s FATHER GORIOT.) The dialect is not easy for modern readers, but it lends a richness and verisimilitude to the tale if the reader is patient enough to stick with it. The story moves forward to its tragic conclusion, sweeping the reader along. If the narrative does not quite evoke the “pity and terror” of a Greek tragedy, it does provide the reader with a rich and rewarding emotional and intellectual experience. Although the novel seems to be a “slice of life,” it is a highly sophisticated and artfully structured book, ingeniously creating a calculated effect, and thus is a work of art of a very high order.

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