Chapters 1-2 Summary
Gilbert Gaunt of England travels to America in 1837. He eventually settles in Pennsylvania and changes his name to Gant. He marries a Dutch widow who bears him five children, including his second son, Oliver. Oliver Gant apprentices himself to a stonecutter because he is eager to carve an angel, but he never does so. He marries a girl named Cynthia who dies in the second year of their marriage. Gant moves to Altamont, North Carolina, and sets up his stonecutting business. One day, a woman enters his shop to sell books. Her name is Eliza Pentland, and she soon introduces him to her family. Her Uncle Bacchus roams the town preaching the imminent arrival of Armageddon. Mr. Pentland, Eliza’s father, teases Gant with constant puns. Gant pretends to appreciate the humor of the family, but inwardly he feels that he will die a stranger in this Southern town.
Gant marries Eliza and they have a brief honeymoon in Philadelphia. Then they return to Altamont and Gant settles in as an outsider to the community. Eliza has saved some of her money and bought property, including a town site on which Gant builds a shop. Gant sporadically experiences productive phases. Eliza urges him to join her brother Will in business; she believes Gant’s work cutting tombstones will lead nowhere because people do not die fast enough. Gant feels too constrained by Will’s business habits and goes back to his sculpting. However, Gant begins to drink seriously and often has to be carted home by the local inhabitants of Altamont; he becomes a local figure of shame. Eliza and Gant build a home and plant fruit trees and flowers and bushes all around it. To Gant, the house is a picture of his soul. To Eliza, however, it is a piece of property to improve and increase its value.
Eliza and Gant have nine children over eleven years. Their first child dies of infant cholera, and two others die at birth. Four boys and three girls survive, and Gant continues to sink further into alcoholism. At times Eliza has to protect herself from his drunken rages or lock herself away from him. Through it all, Eliza manages to make enough money to buy more property. She sends Gant away several times to take the cure for alcoholism at Richmond. She and four of her children come down with typhoid fever and survive; afterward, she takes them to Florida to recuperate. She somehow finds strength through the struggles of her marriage.