Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 782

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.

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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 idol—treacherously aside. Glasgow also drew her thematic material from her keen interest in psychology. Some of her psychological insights she discovered, for example, in the work of Russian novelists and of Virginia Woolf, authors who also analyzed the complex connections between people’s mental states and emotional decay and the outward appearances they maintained.

In The Sheltered Life, Glasgow recounts that she employed two simultaneous yet related points of view that channeled her story like a stream in a narrow valley. One perspective is that of age: General Archbald’s view of life as it was and might have been. The other is the perspective of youth as seen in the perceptions of troubled young Jenny. Both perspectives come to bear on the same events and personalities. However, through the workings of their different thoughts and emotions, each interprets reality differently.

An author whose feminist convictions placed her in advance of her times, Glasgow likewise sought to explore Eva, Jenny, and her other female characters as multidimensional people, not as mere symbols or metaphors for a male perception that predominated in literature, as in Western thought, long after the first decades of the twentieth century. In all of her writing, Glasgow reveals her disdain for sexual love, for homage to males, and for the glorification of a life of feminine sacrifice. Glasgow clearly sympathized with and in many regards admired Eva Birdsong, even to the point of justifying Eva’s murder of her husband. As critics have noted, however, Eva destroys herself by shooting George. Glasgow thus remains ambiguous about the desirable role for women’s sexuality. This ambiguity is sharpened by her depiction of Jenny, socially and sexually a free spirit, as a shallow, treacherous person. What is not ambiguous is Glasgow’s clear message that it is a mistake for women of any kind or at any time to derive their identities from their sexuality.

By choosing to end the story in 1914, the year in which not only the world of the Archbalds and the Birdsongs was in conspicuous decline but also Western civilization appeared headed for collapse, Glasgow reflected the questions and interests of her times. Serious philosophical issues were in debate about the hidden springs or motivations of human actions. Human thought and actions were increasingly being described as less the outcome of rationality than of obscure inner drives, primordial passions, and emotions. Human values were being depicted not as traditionally sanctified or divinely ordained but as relative and subject to changing biological and cultural interpretations. Human behavior, therefore, increasingly appeared to be a consequence of self-deception, illusion, or delusion.

Insofar as The Sheltered Life signals that not too much should be expected of life or of people—both are full of tricks and deceptions—and yet that love and compassion should not be abandoned, it is a wise book. It is all the wiser because Glasgow identifies courage as “the only virtue that has a lasting quality.”

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