Analysis of Ellen Glasgow’s Novels

Turning away from a romanticized view of her own Virginia, Ellen Glasgow (April 22, 1873 – November 21, 1945) became a part of the revolt against the elegiac tradition of southern letters. Although she rejected romance, she did not turn to realism; rather, she saw herself as a “verist”: “The whole truth,” she said, “must embrace the interior world as well as external appearances.” In this sense, she strove for what she called “blood and irony”— blood because the South had grown thin and pale and was existing on borrowed ideas, copying rather than creating; and irony because it is the surest antidote to sentimental decay. Certain that life in the South was not as it had been pictured by previous writers, she produced a series of novels that recorded the social history of Virginia through three generations, picturing sympathetically the social and industrial revolution that was transforming the romantic South.

A central theme in this record is that of change—change brought about by the conflict between the declining agrarian regime and the rising industrial system. Arguing that such change must be accepted and even welcomed, Glasgow observed,

For thirty years I have had a part in the American literary scene, either as a labourer in the vineyard or as a raven croaking on a bust of Pallas. In all these years I have found that the only permanent law in art, as in the social order, is the law of change.

In pursuing the theme of change, however, Glasgow was careful not to go to the extreme in her presentation of deterioration, feeling that “the literature that crawls too long in the mire will lose at last the power of standing erect.” In this respect, her works, unlike those of William Faulkner or Erskine Caldwell, lack shocking or sensational detail and maintain an almost Victorian sense of decorum. For example, when Dorinda in Barren Ground goes to the city, she is first approached by a fascinating lady clad in black who wants her to enter into a disreputable house. She is then rescued by a kindly doctor who gives her money to go back to Virginia and establish a dairy farm. This tendency toward propriety found in Glasgow’s writing is explained in her plea to the novelist of the southern gothic school:

All I ask him to do is to deal as honestly with living tissues as he now deals with decay, to remind himself that the colors of putrescence have no greater validity for our age, or for any age, than . . . the cardinal virtues.

The theme of change gives a mythic quality to Glasgow’s work. It is that quality that Henry Canby refers to when he says that Glasgow sees her world as always a departing and a becoming. Her instrument for this cutting away is her sense for tender and ironic tragedy, a tragedy that is, in the words of Canby, “a tragedy of frustration—the waste of life through maladjustment of man to his environment and environment to its men.”

Often, too, Glasgow’s works picture nobility cramped by prejudice, or beauty gone wrong through an inability to adjust to the real, or a good philosophy without premises in existing experience. A good example of the latter theme can be found in the character of John Fincastle in Vein of Iron. A man of deep thought, he is considered “as a dangerous skeptic, or as a man of simple faith, who believed that God is essence, not energy, and that blessedness, or the life of the spirit, is the only reality.” Fincastle is a part of the constant change in the world, but he himself does not fully realize the implications of the dynamic society in which he lives. He sees nothing of any potential value in the machine age and is unable to reconcile his own philosophy to the reality of the times.

Although all of Glasgow’s works contain a note of pessimism, there is also present a note of optimism. More often than not, this hope comes after a protagonist’s contact with city life. Dorinda, for example, returns to Pedlar’s Mill after her stay in the city, to start a successful farm and gain revenge from Jason. Then, too, there is Ada in Vein of Iron, who, with her cynical husband, returns to the manse that was once her home and, strengthened by the recovery of “that lost certainty of a continuing tradition,” looks forward to a new beginning.

Perhaps, when compared with Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe, the theme of change, as treated by Glasgow, may seem somewhat sentimental; there is, however, a refreshing and heartening chord in her work that lends credence to the idea that the world is not destined to be one great naturalistic garbage can but may perhaps be fertile enough for an occasional bed of flowers. At any rate, as Glasgow phrased it, “the true revolution may end in a ditch or in the shambles, but it must begin in the stars.”

In Virginia, her first acknowledged masterpiece, Glasgow focuses on the southern woman. “As an emblem,” she writes of the southern woman in The Deliverance, “she followed closely the mid-Victorian ideal, and though her sort was found everywhere in the Western world, it was in Virginia that she seemed to attain her finest and latest flowering.” It would follow, then, that if southern women attained their “finest and latest flowering” in Virginia, that also is where they would be most affected by the winds of social change that were sweeping over the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bred and reared to tradition, they faced a new order that was both challenging and perplexing. Although some held firmly to the pedestal on which they had been placed, others leaped from it and immersed themselves in the new world.

Virginia Pendleton, the heroine of Virginia, is, like her mother, the ideal southern woman, the image of propriety and gentility. “Whenever I attempt to recall the actual writing of Virginia,” Glasgow says in A Certain Measure,

and to recapture the mold in which the book was conceived, I find myself moving again in an imaginary world which was then more real to me than the world which I inhabited. I could not separate Virginia from her background, because she was an integral part of it, and it shared her validity. What she was, that background and atmosphere had helped to make her, and she, in turn, had intensified the life of the picture.

In Dinwiddie, Virginia, during the nineteenth century, Virginia has been reared as “the perfect flower of the Victorian ideal” and “logical result of an inordinate sense of duty, the crowning achievement of the code of beautiful behavior and the Episcopal Church.” She has been taught that duty, devotion, and sacrifice are the lot of women and that husband and family must come before all else.

Virginia, educated at Miss Priscilla Battle’s finishing school, the Dinwiddie Academy for Young Ladies, is indeed “finished,” at least as far as any real purpose in life is concerned. The basis of her education was simply that “the less a girl knew about life, the better prepared she would be to contend with it.” Thinking him an excellent choice for a husband, she marries Oliver Treadwell, son of an industrialist, and, bearing him three children, settles down to family life. Oliver, like his father, who had dominated Oliver’s mother, exercises this same control over Virginia. A would-be dramatist, Oliver is unsuccessful as a serious playwright, but he does receive some financial return by writing claptrap for the New York stage. Although Virginia has become middle-aged and worn, Oliver has maintained the look of youth. Finding no understanding from Virginia, who is not equipped to give him any, he deserts her for Margaret Oldcastle, an actor. Not knowing how to fight for her husband’s love, Virginia is left with her two daughters, whose independence and aggressiveness she cannot understand, and her devoted son, Harry. The purpose in life for which she and so many other southern women had been prepared is gone. “Nothing but constancy was left to her,” says Glasgow, “and constancy, when it has outlived its usefulness, is as barren as fortitude.”

Virginia, in her minor tragedy, represents the ideal woman as victim of change, a change for which she has not been prepared and for which there is no effective antidote. One detects at least a small tear shed by Glasgow for the Virginias of the world. Once seen as ornaments of civilization and as restraints upon the more coarse natures of men, they now must replace self-sacrifice with an assertiveness that will be more in keeping with the changing social order. In that sense, Virginia points forward to Barren Ground.

Barren Ground
Barren Ground marks Glasgow’s emergence not only from a period of despondency regarding her social life but also as a novelist who has moved without question from apprentice to master. Certainly her finest work to that time, Barren Ground was to Glasgow the best of all her novels. One of her country novels, it deals with that class of people often referred to as “poor whites.” Glasgow herself refutes this appelation, preferring instead to call them “good people,” a label that distinguishes them from the aristocratic “good families.” Lineal descendants of the English yeoman farmer, these people were the ones who pushed the frontier westward. In this novel, they stand as a “buffer class between the opulent gentry and the hired labourers.”

Dorinda Oakley, the heroine, is the offspring of a union of opposites: her father, Joshua, a landless man whose industry and good nature do not compensate for his ineffectuality; and her mother, Eudora, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, with a religious mania of her own. This background, says Glasgow, has kept Dorinda’s heart “in arms against life.” More important, however, she has also inherited a kinship with the earth. This kinship enables her to make something positive out of “barren ground.”

Dorinda falls in love with Jason Greylock, a young doctor, seeing in him the promise of something more than the grinding poverty she has known. They plan to marry, but Jason cannot go against his father’s wishes, and he marries Geneva Ellgood instead. Pregnant by Jason, Dorinda flees to New York, where, after being struck by a taxi, she loses the baby. She works as a nurse for a Dr. Faraday until she learns that her father is dying. She returns home with enough money borrowed from Faraday to start a dairy farm. Back on the land, she becomes a tough-minded spinster and makes a success of the farm. Although she marries Nathan Pedlar, a storekeeper, she remains the head of the family. After his death in a train wreck, she is again alone, but happy, rearing Nathan’s child by a previous marriage and managing the farm. Jason, in the meantime, has lost his wife by suicide and is forced to sell his farm to Dorinda. Because he is ill and an alcoholic, she unwillingly provides him with food and shelter. After a few months, he dies, and once more she is alone. When a local farmer asks Dorinda to marry him, she responds, “I am thankful to have finished with all that.”

A tragic figure of sorts, Dorinda sees herself trapped by fate, “a straw in the wind, a leaf on a stream.” Even so, she is not content to be simply a passive victim of that fate. Unlike Jason, who through his inherited weakness, succumbs to the forces that beset him, Dorinda looks upon the land as a symbol of that fate against which she must struggle. Hardened by adversity and with a deep instinct for survival, she refuses to surrender.

Although Dorinda’s life may be compared to barren ground because it has been emotionally unfulfilled, it nevertheless is a successful life in that she does master herself and in turn masters the land. Just as the broom sedge must be burned off the land, so must romantic emotions be purged from Dorinda’s soul. In giving her life to the land, she, in a sense, gains it back—and is thus, ironically, both victim and victor.

The Romantic Comedians
Following Barren Ground, Glasgow turned to the novel of manners with The Romantic Comedians. The first of a trilogy—the subsequent works being They Stooped to Folly and The Sheltered Life—this novel has been regarded by some critics as Glasgow’s finest. After Barren Ground, Glasgow comments, a novel “which for three years had steeped my mind in the tragic life, the comic spirit, always restless when it is confined, began struggling against the bars of its cage.” Because she never before had turned her hand to comedy of manners, The Romantic Comedians was written in the nature of an experiment.

The novel exhibits a high spirit of comedy with tragic overtones. “Tragedy and comedy were blood brothers” in Glasgow’s image-making faculty, she writes, “but they were at war with each other, and had steadily refused to be reconciled.” In The Romantic Comedians, says Blair Rouse, “we see people and their actions as participants in the follies of the comic genre; but we see, too, that a very slight shift of emphasis may reveal a tragic mask upon the actors.”

Judge Gamaliel Bland Honeywell, the protagonist, “is a collective portrait of several Virginians of an older school,” says Glasgow, “who are still unafraid to call themselves gentlemen.” Living in Queenborough (Richmond, Virginia), he seeks female companionship after his wife of thirty-six years dies. At the age of sixty-five, he is expected to marry a former sweetheart, Amanda Lightfoot. Disdaining such expected decorum, however, he falls in love with and marries Annabelle Upchurch, a young cousin of his wife. Annabelle marries him not so much for love, but rather, to heal the pain of being jilted by Angus Blount. As one might suspect in such a marriage, Annabelle is soon looking for greener pastures, finding them in Delaney Birdsong, with whom she goes to New York. Unable to win her back, the Judge, ill and disillusioned, believes that life holds nothing more for him. With the coming of spring, however, he looks upon his attractive young nurse and muses, “Spring is here, and I am feeling almost as young as I felt last year.”

Judge Honeywell, like many of Glasgow’s women, is of another tradition. More than age separates him from Annabelle. Although he is the target of some satiric jibes in the book and one finds it difficult to find much sincerity in him, he is, nevertheless, a victim of the same kind of romantic claptrap that dooms other Glasgow characters.

A refreshing book when contrasted with Glasgow’s previous efforts, The Romantic Comedians displays the author’s humanity as well as her humor. Although she makes the reader laugh at the actions of the Judge and the other characters of the novel, she never lets them become completely ridiculous. Whatever else the Judge is, for example, he is a human being—and no one recognizes that more than Glasgow.

The Sheltered Life
In The Sheltered Life, the last novel of her trilogy on manners, Glasgow employs two points of view—that of youth and that of age, in this case a young girl and an old man. Against the background of a “shallow and aimless society of happiness hunters,” she presents more characters of Queenborough as they are revealed through the mind and emotions of Jenny Blair and her grandfather, General David Archbald.

Glasgow intended General Archbald as the central character in the novel—a character who “represents the tragedy, wherever it appears, of the civilized man in a world that is not civilized.” General Archbald sees before him a changing world, a world that is passing him by. Thus, he holds to the social traditions of the nineteenth century, which have provided little shelter for him. He was never a man for his time. A sensitive person who had wanted to be a poet, he was ridiculed in his earlier years. Poetry had been his one love in life; it was lost before it could be realized. He married his wife only because of an accidental, overnight sleigh ride that, in tradition-bound Queenborough, demanded marriage to save appearances. A compassionate man, he gives up his desire to marry again after his wife dies in order not to disrupt the lives of his son’s widow and her daughter Jenny.

Jenny, too, unknowingly is caught in the patterned existence of the Archbald heritage. A willful girl, she has been sheltered from the real world by culture and tradition and can see things only in terms of her own desires. At the age of eighteen, she falls in love with an older married man, George Birdsong. George’s wife, Eva, eventually finds them in each other’s arms. Jenny flees the scene, only to learn later that Eva has killed George.

Eva Birdsong is another perfect image of southern womanhood, beautiful and protected all her life. A celebrated belle prior to her marriage to George, she has striven to achieve a perfect marriage. Without children, she and George are thrown upon each other. Over the years, George has been a bit of a roué, seeking pleasure where he could find it. In the end, Eva is left with the realization that what women “value most is something that doesn’t exist.”

When Jenny realizes what she has done, she flies to the General’s understanding and sheltering arms, crying, “Oh, Grandfather, I didn’t mean anything. . . . I didn’t mean anything in the world.” Ironically enough, she is right: She did not mean anything.

The Sheltered Life is more a tragicomedy than simply a comedy of manners. It is also, perhaps, Glasgow’s best work, the novel toward which its predecessors were pointed. Symbol, style, characterization, and rhythm all combine to make The Sheltered Life a poignant and penetrating illustration of the futility of clinging to a tradition that has lost its essential meaning.

Glasgow’s goal in all of her writing is perhaps stated best in A Certain Measure, when she says in reference to her last novel, In This Our Life, that she was trying to show “the tragedy of a social system that lives, grows, and prospers by material standards alone.” One can sense in such a statement a conservative regard for tradition; even though Glasgow and many of her characters struggled against a shallow romanticism, a yearning for a genuine tradition was never far from her own artistic vision. The land seems to be the single sustaining factor in all of Glasgow’s novels—it was the land that gave rise to and nourished the so-called southern tradition and that provides the “living pulse of endurance” to so many of her characters.

Major work
Long fiction • The Descendant, 1897; Phases of an Inferior Planet, 1898; The Voice of the People, 1900; The Battle-Ground, 1902; The Deliverance, 1904; The Wheel of Life, 1906; The Ancient Law, 1908; The Romance of a Plain Man, 1909; The Miller of Old Church, 1911; Virginia, 1913; Life and Gabriella, 1916; The Builders, 1919; One Man in His Time, 1922; Barren Ground, 1925; The Romantic Comedians, 1926; They Stooped to Folly, 1929; The Sheltered Life, 1932; Vein of Iron, 1935; In This Our Life, 1941.
Short fiction: The Shadowy Third, and Other Stories, 1923; The Collected Stories of Ellen Glasgow, 1963.
Poetry: The Freeman, and Other Poems, 1902.
Nonfiction: A Certain Measure: An Interpretation of Prose Fiction, 1943; The Woman Within, 1954; Letters of Ellen Glasgow, 1958; The Battle-Ground, 2000 (Pamela R. Matthews, editor); Perfect Companionship: Ellen Glasgow’s Selected Correspondence with Women, 2005.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

Categories: Literature

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