Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579
Growing up in the later nineteenth century in what he referred to as the Middle Border—western Wisconsin, northeastern Iowa, and southern South Dakota—Hamlin Garland learned what it meant to live and work on a family farm. What gave him a perspective on this life, however, was his subsequent gravitation to...
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Growing up in the later nineteenth century in what he referred to as the Middle Border—western Wisconsin, northeastern Iowa, and southern South Dakota—Hamlin Garland learned what it meant to live and work on a family farm. What gave him a perspective on this life, however, was his subsequent gravitation to Boston in the 1880’s to work as a journalist and writer of fiction. When, after several years in the East, he twice revisited the Middle Border, he was struck anew by the bleakness of the life his family had led and was still leading. The stories in his Main-Travelled Roads: Six Mississippi Valley Stories (1891), of which “Mrs. Ripley’s Trip” is the last, interpret the territory of his early life in the light of the possibilities for personal fulfillment of which he had since become aware.
In these stories, Garland highlights the physical characteristics of midwestern farm life and their effects on the human spirit. The weather, for instance, proved characteristically harsh and undependable. In November, the time of this story, a snowstorm descends on Ethan as he makes his way to town to raise the money for his wife’s ticket. It is clear from the Ripleys’ poverty—the only light they can afford in their house is a candle—that weather has often been no more propitious during the growing season. The physical demands on both have long since worn them down. Jane Ripley is described in the first paragraph of the story as “little, weazened, and hopeless.” Amidst the withered corn rows on his farm, Ethan plods, his back stiff and bent.
What particularly appalled Garland was the acceptance of these conditions, the resignation that he saw in people like his parents. The Ripleys’ backbreaking routine has extended over decades. Ethan has no more comfort to look forward to than the buffalo coat that after all these years he still has not accumulated enough money to purchase. When a neighbor learns that Mrs. Ripley is planning a trip East, she is “astonished.” The possibility of such “gallivantin’” has hardly crossed her mind. These are people who for the most part can scarcely imagine, much less actually devise, plans for such an adventure.
Despite the numbing oppressiveness of such an existence and Garland’s recognition that the overwhelming response of most farm families was a stolid and fatalistic acceptance, a story like “Mrs. Ripley’s Trip” expresses his conviction that the human spirit is not always and necessarily overcome by the physical facts of life on a poor Iowa farm. Mrs. Ripley’s body may be nondescript, but her eyes have a “peculiar sparkle.” Strange as it seems to her neighbors and even to her husband, she has been planning this trip East for years. Knowing that it could never happen more than once, she has nevertheless determined that it will happen that one time. Ethan’s spirit remains alive also, although in a different way. Poverty cannot destroy his generosity. He has very little, but when he recognizes how much this unexpected break in the routine of their lives together means to Jane, he is willing to break into his meager resources to help her accomplish her goal. His imagination does not permit him personally to contemplate a return to the site of his early years, but he is able to imagine what such a visit means to his wife. Like her he retains, amid all afflictions, a sense of decent and generous conduct.