(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Vein of Iron stresses one of Glasgow’s dominant themes: that only the strong can make it through the hardships of life. As in many other Glasgow novels, including Barren Ground, the most obvious of these hardships is the lack of money. Ada Fincastle, the protagonist of Vein of Iron, has been aware of her family’s precarious financial situation from her earliest years.

Her father, however, unlike Dorinda’s father, is an educated man; indeed, his intellectual gifts have been his downfall. A Presbyterian minister, he had published a brilliant but unconventional book; as a result, he lost his church and his profession, and he had to move back to his Appalachian home, where he lives with his mother, attempting to support the household on what he can make as a schoolmaster.

Ada’s childhood is summed up by her disappointment when her father brings her a cheap doll for Christmas instead of the one with real hair on which she had set her heart. Her character is summed up by the comment made at that time—that the child has a single heart. Although that singleness of affection means that Ada will never be happy with the wrong doll, in later life it enables her to cling to her love for Ralph McBride until together they find happiness.

The love story of Ada Fincastle and Ralph McBride begins in their childhood, when they are schoolfellows. By the time Ada is twenty, she knows that she is in love with Ralph, who is then a young law student. After a quarrel, however, Ralph gets involved with another young woman; when he is found in a compromising situation, he is forced by her parents...

(The entire section is 671 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Ellen Glasgow divides Vein of Iron into five parts: “Toward Life,” “The Single Heart,” “Life’s Interlude,” “God’s Mountain,” and “The Dying Age.” In the first three parts, Ada Fincastle moves toward union with Ralph McBride. That union is achieved in part 3, though the couple does not marry until Ralph returns from World War I early in part 5. Meanwhile, the family leaves the Manse, their ancestral home in the mountain village of Ironside. She and Ralph begin their married life in metropolitan Queenborough. In part 5, they struggle to return to their beloved home. This return is achieved in the last chapter.

Part 1, “Toward Life,” tells, through multiple centers of consciousness, the story of one December day when Ada is ten. The novel begins with Ada’s experiences of that day when she expected her father to bring her a doll with real hair. She has saved her money, and she is acutely aware that she will soon be too old to enjoy dolls. Unfortunately, her father is unable to bring her such a doll. Though she is extremely disappointed, she is able, thanks to the strength of the family which understands her and cares for her, to accept the substitute doll.

Other incidents in Ada’s life that day, as well as looks into the consciousnesses of her grandmother, aunt, father, and mother, reveal the qualities which sustain Ada through this disappointment and which sustain her and her family through the vicissitudes of their lives. Ada is characterized by imaginative sympathy: She is able to imagine herself inside others and to feel their pain and their moral qualities. She also has a strong will. The qualities of the family which sustain her include her mother’s appreciation of beauty and small comforts, her father’s intellectual integrity, her aunt’s unfailing and uncomplaining service to the material needs of the family, and her grandmother’s pride in the family history, a history of pioneer men and women who have overcome great difficulties to live good and happy lives.

The family’s life is difficult, largely because John Fincastle has given up a promising career as a Presbyterian minister to write philosophy. He has chosen to approach God through reason, and as a result, he has been expelled from the ministry. Hence, the family is chronically short of money. They live reasonably well because each family member works so hard to provide the necessities of life. John earns a little money teaching a small school in his home but spends as much of his time as he can on his monumental work of philosophy. His work goes unrecognized in America, though it is appreciated by important European thinkers. John’s wife, Mary Evelyn, approves of and defends his choice of life even though it deprives her of many of the comforts to which she was accustomed in her youth, and even though this rough life leads...

(The entire section is 1171 words.)