The Sheltered Life, the last of Ellen Glasgow’s Queenborough novels, was appraised critically as one of her finest works and as a major American novel. Glasgow’s tone throughout the work is ironic, at times satiric. The plot is tightly constructed, and the characters, notably General Archbald, Eva, George, and Jenny, are plausible, three-dimensional, and memorable. Glasgow uses deft metaphorical shadings and contrasts. Bright settings become darker and more somber as events proceed, and the encroachments of industrialism become progressively louder and more noxious. The waning of Eva’s beauty and marriage are paralleled by her declining fortunes, dress, and gardens and by the steady erosion of her once-elegant neighborhood and her cherished delusions. The characters, too, are skillfully contrasted. The general and Eva are well-cast evocations of an old and dying order’s values. By contrast, George and Jenny are less inhibited and more hedonistic, undisciplined, and vulgar in their vitality; neither is evil, however, and their actions, if not always commendable, are at least understandable. Similarly, General Archbald’s daughters reflect a familiar range of feminine repressions: Etta, the homely spinster, neurotic and sexually starved, and Isabella drawn by her flirtations to blend into the commonplace.
Glasgow was one of many who were surprised that The Sheltered Life did not garner a Pulitzer Prize. The novel represented Glasgow’s most intensive exploitation of themes she dealt with many times, chief among them her concern with evasive idealism, its subjective and cultural manifestations, and the consequences of its encounters with reality. This thematic exploration was informed by Glasgow’s study of Darwinism and its emphasis on the biological imperatives that produced survivors. To satisfy her sexuality, Jenny is, for example, prepared to push others—even Eva, her...
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