Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ellen Glasgow’s Vein of Iron is a novel of many messages, the principal one of which is encapsulated in a brief dialogue on its last page. The protagonist, Ada, and her husband, Ralph, in middle age have returned to Ironside, their native village in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Misunderstandings, failures, poverty, sicknesses, deception, and deaths lie behind them. Ralph gently chides Ada for being a dreamer but adds that it is queer that a dreamer nevertheless should be a rock upon which to lean. Understanding in her heart that Ralph is confessing his softness and his dependence upon her, Ada exclaims, “And you . . . Oh, Ralph we have been happy together!” Less open and communicative than Ada, Ralph at last replies, “Yes, we’ve had a poor life, but we’ve been happy together.” Through fortitude, Ada had kept her heart and femininity alive to appreciate the gifts of life. Love had made everything worthwhile for her even if Ralph, the recipient of it, was weaker than she. Not least, Ada understands that happiness is a blessing, not a right.

Casting herself as the third-person narrator, Glasgow divided Vein of Iron into five parts of unequal length. Part 3, for example, “Life’s Interlude,” is composed of two brief chapters, while part 5, “The Dying Age,” the novel’s lengthiest section, has eighteen chapters. The story unfolds chronologically, opening in part 1, “Towards Life,” when Ada is ten, a portion of the novel that provides the cultural setting and introduces Ada, John Fincastle and his wife, Mary Evelyn, Grandmother, Ralph McBride, and Janet Rowan and her family. Subsequent parts advance the characters toward middle age.

Some of the novel’s reviewers and critics have focused on John Fincastle, the admirable, almost mystical philosopher who is portrayed as an anachronism in an age enamored of science and devoted to riches, as the central figure. The book’s major events do transpire within his ken and are shaped in important ways by his intellectual and moral integrity. Glasgow provided no clues,...

(The entire section is 849 words.)