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Vein of Iron Summary

(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 to marry her. Years pass; Ralph goes into military service during World War I. When he returns home on leave, separated from his wife but not yet divorced, he and Ada spend some idyllic days together in a mountain cabin before Ralph returns to his unit.

When Ada’s pregnancy becomes known, the devout Christians of her community treat her like an outcast. Eventually, Ada, her father, her aunt, and her little son move to Queenborough, where Ada can find a job in a store, while her father again turns to teaching. Although this is a very difficult period for Ada, she endures. When Ralph at last finds her and the son he did not know he had, it seems that her trials are over.

Yet the pattern repeats itself. Ralph is injured in an accident. Ten years of savings go for his medical care. Then, just as the family is getting back on its feet, the Depression bursts upon them. The plight of the McBrides, who have always worked hard and saved what they could, only to lose their jobs and their savings, is repeated over and over. Ironically, Ralph and Ada show a strength in adversity that is lacking in Ada’s once-wealthy kinfolk, who formerly snubbed her and now must accept her generosity.

At the end of the novel, Ralph and Ada move back to their old Appalachian home. Even though they will probably always be poor and even though the first glow of love is gone, they realize that they have found happiness in their love for each other. The comparison with Barren Ground is obvious. In Vein of Iron, the protagonist’s first love is basically a man of character (although he has his weaknesses) who never ceases loving her. In turn, she retains her capacity to love and, though it brings her heartaches, in the end that openness gives her contentment.

Although much in the two plots is similar—the disappointment in love, the illicit sexual relationships resulting in pregnancy, the unstable and unhappy family situations, and the haunting poverty—the heroines, though both strong, react in very different ways to life’s hardships. Where Dorinda denies her emotional being, Ada draws strength from it. Not only her ancestry but also her willingness to love gives her the iron to endure.


(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...

(The entire section is 1,842 words.)