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Jalna Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

The Whiteoaks of Jalna were quite a family. The parents were dead, and the children, ranging in age from eight to more than forty, were held together by Renny, the oldest son, and tyrannized by Grandma Whiteoak, a matriarch of ninety-nine years. The family estate of Jalna had been founded by Grandfather Whiteoak, but it had dwindled somewhat from its original greatness. By common consent, Renny managed the farms and the family, although he frequently encountered resistance from both.

Meg, the oldest daughter, had been engaged in her youth to Maurice Vaughan, a neighbor and a friend of the family. While he waited out the long engagement insisted upon by Meg, he had become entangled with a low-class girl and fathered a child, Pheasant. The girl had disappeared, and Maurice had grudgingly raised Pheasant. Meg, deaf to the pleas of Maurice and her family for a forgiving heart, had broken the engagement and gone into almost complete retirement. Maurice was never allowed at Jalna again, although he and Renny served in the war together and remained friends.

Renny had remained a bachelor, the head of the family, and a man with quite a reputation with women. Only his passions had been involved in these affairs, however, and thus it seemed that he would never marry. Renny accepted his power and his position but seemed not greatly to enjoy either.

The rest of the children were half brothers to these two. Eden was a poet and a dreamer. Farm life disgusted him, and since he had recently had a book of poetry accepted by a New York publisher, he hoped to get away from Jalna and make his way with his writing. However, work of any kind was so distasteful to Eden that it seemed unlikely he could ever break the ties which held him to Jalna.

Piers was a plodder, with no flights of fancy or dreams of grandeur. Doing most of the manual work on the farms, he took orders from Renny in a lethargic way. Renny, learning that Piers had been seen with Pheasant Vaughan, warned the boy that such an alliance could lead only to trouble for both.

Finch was the real problem. Still in school, he barely managed to return each term. Different from the rest, he had no ambition or drive of any kind. The family obviously considered him useless, but they stuck by him because he was family. Finch brooded. On his lonely walks through the woods and fields, he often saw through matters other members of the family tried to conceal.

Wakefield was just eight years old, and thus greatly spoiled. He had a heart condition which allowed him to get his own way without effort.

Grandma Whiteoak held a whip over them all. Her will had been made—and often changed—to be used as a weapon over the children and her two sons, who also lived at Jalna. She was ninety-nine and a despot. In many ways she was evil, using her power to force the children to obey her whims.

The first to cause a real stir at Jalna was Piers. He and Pheasant eloped. When they returned home, both Maurice and the Whiteoaks scorned them. Meg became hysterical and swore she would not have Maurice’s daughter in her house. Grandma hit Piers over the head with her cane and would have hit Pheasant, but Renny quieted them and said that Pheasant was now part of the family and would be treated accordingly. Instantly everyone, even Meg, accepted his authority.

Eden went to New York to see his publisher and there met and married Alayne Archer, a reader for the publishing house. She felt she had discovered him through his poetry and could inspire him. An orphan, she looked forward to being part of such a large family. When they reached Jalna, however, she felt an unexplained coldness. She was warmly welcomed by all but Piers, who resented the difference between her reception and Pheasant’s, but she could feel tensions that were just under the surface. Grandma was revolting to the gentle Alayne, who knew she must make the old tyrant like her if she was to know any peace at Jalna.

With Alayne, Finch found his first real happiness....

(The entire section is 1,119 words.)