Form and Content
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, however, as to the substance of John’s intellections and gave no indications about what precisely his four volumes of philosophy contained. In so doing, she made it abundantly clear that Vein of Iron is Ada’s story.
Reared in a Southern Presbyterian stronghold, the village of Ironside in Shut-In Valley, Ada is the child of strong people who endure hard times and who live somewhat on the defensive. Her father, John Fincastle, chose foremost to live by his principles and make whatever sacrifices that decision imposed upon him and those dear to him. Intelligent, caring, an idealist and a dreamer, Ada is exposed in early life to conventional village mores, to the blessings and cruelties of a tightly knit community. The family, friends, and acquaintances that are important to her or affect her life are those who were around her during childhood.
Ada, in Glasgow’s depiction, is a “single heart.” She has but one love; she clings to it, pursues it, and nourishes it as the key to meaningful existence. Attracted as a child to Ralph McBride, Ada by twenty has committed her heart to him. Ralph lacks Ada’s constancy, although he has promise. John Fincastle sees a future for him in the law, for Ralph is bright, hard working, and intelligent. With help, he even begins studying law. Nevertheless, he is easily influenced by others and shows a feckless streak. Even as he confesses his love to Ada, he simultaneously allows himself to fall into a compromising situation with Janet Rowan, the pretty, well-to-do, conniving village bitch. Janet claims that Ralph impregnated her and, availing herself of village conventions, she forces him into marriage. His prospects in ruins, Ralph and Janet move from the Valley. Janet has lied about her pregnancy. Years later, however, Ralph, on his way overseas, leaves Ada with child, one she must rear, amid the shame of the village and her family, alone.
Ada bravely confronts her fate:...
(The entire section is 1,599 words.)