The Sheltered Life

by Ellen Glasgow

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 786

“I’m alive, alive, alive, and I’m Jenny Blair Archbald,” exclaims the precocious nine-year-old Jenny, on having thrown aside as tedious Louisa Alcott’s Little Women (1868). Jenny lives with three somewhat downtrodden females—her widowed mother and two aunts—in the household of her grandfather, General David Archbald. An aged, highly civilized man, the general seeks to maintain his aristocratic family amid declining fortunes in a once-elegant but rapidly failing Queenborough neighborhood. Jenny, like her mother, grandfather, and aunts, is an ardent admirer of the similarly circumstanced married couple who live nearby, Eva and George Birdsong, whose marriage is a subject of speculative discussion among the Archbald women.

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Eva Birdsong, a queenly belle of the 1890’s and still an acknowledged beauty as she approaches her forties, abandoned her social position as well as a planned singing career when she fell in love with George Birdsong. George, a barely successful attorney, is handsome, invariably charming and likable, and a consummate philanderer who recognizes Eva’s worth but is unable to rise to it. Aware that her beauty and the social attentions that it commands are waning, Eva refuses to acknowledge even the most blatant evidences of George’s adulteries.

Increasingly amoral and hedonistic, Jenny, even as a child, idolized Eva Birdsong for her regal beauty and character, neither of which, she realizes, lies within her reach. Jenny is also powerfully drawn to George, who has cultivated her affections since her childhood. Jenny, moreover, shares a secret with him: Having injured herself falling off roller skates one day in a poorer neighborhood, she was cared for, as it happened, by George and his black mistress. Over the years, Jenny is a frequent and favored visitor in the Birdsong household. Eva, as her fortunes worsen, begins to confide in Jenny, explaining how plans for her early career were jettisoned when, falling in love with George, she “stopped wanting anything else,” and that a “great love doesn’t leave room for anything else in a woman’s life.” At a grand party attended by all of the Archbalds and Birdsongs, George has an amorous encounter with a pretty young girl in a secluded garden. Eva, distraught, collapses, and even Jenny and other children present recognize her marital self-delusions.

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Eight years later, old General Archbald muses over his life and the lives of his family and friends. Eva, whom the general reverences as the epitome of beautiful and courageous womanhood and thus as a symbol of his dying southern values, at the age of forty undergoes a maiming operation that is followed by a nervous collapse. Thereafter she is sickly and loses her striking beauty. Increasingly, she also recognizes the price exacted from her for a life of illusions. As General Archbald devotedly attends her, often in George’s company, he pities Eva for this. While cognizant of the cause of her malaise, however, he still thinks George has the right to philander and that men’s adulteries are irrelevant to their love relationships with their wives.

General Archbald also muses about his own youth and the destruction of his poetic talent by his father’s callous insistence that he adhere to a traditional southern male role. The general realizes that his conventional marriage resulted from a mistaken obedience to outworn standards. He fell into the right pattern, as he phrases it, but the center of the pattern is missing.

As Eva passively awaits a further operation, it becomes clear that she is weary of a life of “exacting pretense” and that she wants to die. The operation strips her of her remaining beauty, and she succumbs to a postoperative breakdown. Nevertheless, she clings to a faith in her love, excusing George’s philandering as a consequence of his kindness. Jenny, nearly eighteen, hopes to escape home and launch a career. She continues her idolatry of Eva, which Eva reciprocates by confiding her inner thoughts. Eva confesses to Jenny that for forty years she never really knew herself, and she warns Jenny that to surrender everything to love, as she did, is to become a slave to fear.

Despite Eva’s soul-baring confidences, Jenny is nevertheless attracted to George. When Eva departs to convalesce, their opportunities for meeting increase. One day after Eva’s return, Jenny and George, believing that she is upstairs, are locked in an embrace when Eva inadvertently discovers them. Terrified, Jenny flees into the ruins of Eva’s garden. Shortly afterward, Eva fatally shoots George amid the blood of his recent kills. Rallying to Eva, General Archbald outfaces the law by describing the murder as an accident, thus continuing to preserve his sheltered life and the sheltered lives of his kin from an encounter with reality.

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