Glasgow’s characterizations in Vein of Iron are rich and detailed. A special feature of characterization is Glasgow’s portrayal of the family’s shared consciousness. This consciousness is a shared history which seems to divide into masculine and feminine versions. In the men, there has been a hunger for wisdom and the freedom in which to pursue it. This hunger has appeared in their tradition of dissent which carried them from Scotland, to Ireland, to America, and finally to Ironside. In the women, there has been a steady refusal to surrender to the forces of chaos. They decline to accept defeat by war, disaster, and disease; they draw strength from their past, and they project their family toward life. This sense of a sustaining wholeness in a family determined to continue into the future and dedicated to the pursuit of something beyond life is richly captured and portrayed by Glasgow, especially in part 1. These forces come to a focus in Ada. She makes a whole and happy life in the chaos of “the dying age” because of her sense of belonging to and continuing this way of living which transcends social and political forms.
John is an important foil to Ada. He has chosen to pursue God through reason, but he realizes that God may be pursued just as validly through the emotions. In fact, he recognizes that the central cause of his pursuit is a passion, a hunger to know. In the context of John’s scholarship, Ada’s search for happiness becomes, also, a search for God. Both find their searches fulfilled repeatedly in various forms in the very process of searching. Both characters repeatedly come to moments in their lives when they are able to affirm that despite much pain, they have been happy and they are happy at the moment.
Ada Fincastle, later McBride, a ten-year-old when the novel opens, the daughter of John Fincastle, a defrocked Presbyterian minister. Sensitive to people and nature, she instinctively understands that her role in life is to make the best of every situation. Drawing heavily on the “vein of iron” that is the bloodline of her heritage (beginning with Great-Great-Grandmother Martha Tod, who was held captive and married to a young chief by the Indians and then returned to civilized Christianity), Ada has a deep faith in the ultimate goodness of life and in the necessity of accepting one’s predestined fate. Growing up in Ironside, Virginia, she experiences disappointment, loss, and great happiness. Ada is the moral, financial, and ethical glue that keeps the family from falling into chaos. Throughout the thirty-five years of her life that the novel chronicles, Ada is faithful to her heritage, her sense of what is appropriate, and her deeply felt understanding of the strength of love. As the novel ends, she moves Ralph, their son Rannie, and herself back to the manse in Ironside, believing that if they try, they will succeed.
Grandmother Fincastle, John’s mother and Ada’s grandmother, who is seventy years old as the novel opens. She is the strength holding the family together in the manse during the era of family poverty after John’s dismissal from the pulpit. Deeply religious and a survivor, she believes that the Lord will provide and is content with what life gives. Of her nine children, only John and Meggie survived to adulthood. Her consistency in activity and belief gives meaning to the Fincastle home. Despite her disapproval of Ada’s pregnancy, she assists at the birth of Rannie. She dies after a fall in 1917.
John Fincastle, Ada’s father, the fourth to carry the name. He is, a world-renowned philosopher who lost his pulpit for preaching Baruch Spinoza’s god and not Abraham’s. He is forty-four years old as the novel begins, unemployed, living in his family’s manse, and writing his (ultimately) five-volume philosophical opus. At the suggestion of Dr. Updike, the family physician and friend, he opens a school in one room of the manse and is...
(The entire section is 1,154 words.)