Analysis of Ellen Glasgow’s Dare’s Gift

Dare’s Gift was completed by January 5, 1917, and published in Harper’s Magazine in March of that same year (Kelly 117). The story was later included in The Shadowy Third and Other Stories, published in 1923, and is included in The Collected Stories of Ellen Glasgow, published in 1963. It was the second in a series of short stories, many drawing upon supernatural themes, written after the death of several of Ellen Glasgow’s family members. Glasgow had moved back into her Richmond family home, which she felt “belonged to the dead” (Woman Within 222), and she was particularly drawn to the “ghosts” of her sister Cary, her brother Frank, and her mother (Woman Within 222). She was also in the midst of a courtship with Henry Anderson, to whom she became engaged six months later (Goodman 148). Glasgow had had a problematic relationship with her mother, “who personified the Southern Lady” (Ammons 169), and she believed that her father had betrayed her mother by committing adultery (Godbold 27). Probably as a result of the adultery, Glasgow’s mother had suffered from long periods of mental illness.

Betrayal, a “haunted” house, mental illness, and fears about marriage converge in “Dare’s Gift,” as does fascination with southern culture, which Glasgow was reexperiencing after living for some time in the North.

Dare’s Gift, from which the story gets its name, is a southern colonial mansion in Virginia to which Harold Beckwith takes his wife, Mildred, for a rest cure. Supposedly mentally unbalanced, possibly by inhabiting the political hothouse of Washington, D.C., Mildred has been advised by a “great specialist” to leave the city (“Dare’s Gift” 48). The implication is that Mildred needs to renew her hold on “domestic space”: her private, female sanctuary of home and garden (Matthews 112). But this space is figured as dark and foreboding, its box hedges walling her in, its stale air giving her “a sudden feeling of faintness” (“Dare’s Gift” 60) as she arrives at the mansion.

Ellen Glasgow/Virginia Changemakers

Glasgow constructs the story in two parts: the first about Mildred, the author’s contemporary, who leaks her attorney husband’s secrets to his adversary, and, hence to the newspapers; the second about Lucy Dare, an occupant of Dare’s Gift, who, near the end of the Civil War, betrays her Northern lover by pointing out his hiding place to Confederate soldiers—although those soldiers, as true Southern gentlemen, had previously decided not to search the house out of respect for Lucy and for her father, the typical Southern “Colonel.” Mildred’s revelation causes only a rift in the marital bond while Lucy’s brings on the death of her lover, who is shot trying to escape. However, both women sacrifice personal relationships for political causes. Lucy’s costly and desperate act serves a lost cause, as the narrator makes clear. Mildred’s violation of her husband’s confidence, however, makes public the corporate crimes of a large railway. History may validate Mildred’s courage.

Both women defy the stereotype of the emotional female, shielded from and hesitant to enter the public realm. Both “break out” of the traditions of southern womanhood as Ammons claims Glasgow desired to do (169). Both strongly assert, “I had to do it. I would do it again” (“Dare’s Gift” 73, 100).

Both, moreover, are motivated by “an idea” (77). Dr. Lakeby, the narrator of Lucy’s story, sees “every act as merely the husk of an idea.” He claims, “The act dies; it decays like the body, but the idea is immortal” (77). Lakeby believes the idea of “treachery” is embedded in the “haunted” house. He also refers to “the idea of the Confederacy” (81): the most significant historic betrayal of the nation-state. Lakeby, in retrospect, recognizes the insubstantiality of the “dream . . . that commanded the noblest devotion, the completest self-sacrifice” (81), yet he valorizes the ability to subordinate personal welfare to the public good; he compares Lucy to a medieval saint (79) and to Antigone (80).

Glasgow, who hated the crimes of the South against blacks and against those who, as her brother Frank, did not fit into the southern cultural mold, seems in this story to come to terms with her Southern heritage. The cause of the Confederacy, wrongheaded and damaging as she knew it was, elicited the kind of idealism and selfl essness that she admired. Her own mother’s endurance through war, poverty, and a difficult family life must have seemed noble to Glasgow, as did the code of the southern gentleman. Devotion to an idea might not be so terrible if that idea were worthy. Mildred’s defining action is to contact a philanthropist/watchdog, and she refuses to take her “share of the spoils” from her husband’s defense of a corrupt corporation (63). According to Catherine Rainwater, Mildred’s rebellion demonstrates “tentative progress.” Rainwater suggests that Glasgow believed with H. G. Wells in a “spiral” of progress, in “the gradual evolution of humanity” (131). Mildred is further evolved than Lucy, and Glasgow’s story itself attempts to redefine Southern idealism and to show how it might be used to change the course of history to encourage humane evolution. As Rainwater claims, “The Chinese-box arrangement of stories within stories” models the way in which “storytelling itself” facilitates the escape from historical repetitions (130).

Recent scholarship tends to focus on the “storytelling itself,” on the two-part narrative structure, and on the two unreliable male narrators. Part 1 is told by Mildred’s husband, who considers his wife and her action insane. Part 2 is told by Dr. Lakeby, a superstitious country physician, who condemns Lucy’s choice but excuses her because he believes the house influenced her decision. Pamela Matthews accurately points out that Beckwith “denies [Mildred] the agency” that she finds to act independently of him because he imputes her action to mental illness (127). Lakeby, in blaming the house for Lucy’s betrayal, likewise denies her agency. In addition, the male narrators silence the women; the reader never hears their stories in their own words and must negotiate his or her way through various male prejudices. Furthermore, Mildred never hears Lucy’s whole story; Lakeby tells it to Beckwith. The narrative structure thus represents, according to Matthews, “the insufficiency in the telling of women’s stories by anyone other than themselves” (126).

But let us back up a bit to examine how Dare’s Gift became haunted. Sir Roderick Dare, the first owner, is rumored to have betrayed Bacon, the leader of Bacon’s Rebellion, a precursor of the American Revolution. Sir Roderick, a presumed royalist, seems to have backed the losing side; he opposed the evolutionary forces that impelled America toward democracy. His descendant Lucy also supports an aristocracy the country has outgrown: a regressive, slaveholding, economically stratified society. But Glasgow includes two other stories within the story. Duncan, the present owner of Dare’s Gift, is personally betrayed by his secretary, who embezzles “cash and securities” (56); and Duncan has also alienated the community, perhaps “by putting on airs” (55). The woman who precedes the Beckwiths as a tenant has experienced a similar personal betrayal: Her husband has run off with her sister.

Critics mention, but do not discuss in depth, the relationships among these four betrayals, three of which concern marriage and all of which touch on delicate personal issues. Matthews relates Masse’s concept of “gothic repetition” to the “two-part structure” and to “the doubled female protagonists” (124), but not to the dual betrayals of the sister and husband or of the secretary and neighbors. Further study might elucidate these “repetition[s].”

Also deserving further study is Glasgow’s use of Poe. Critics note that the name Roderick may allude to Poe’s Roderick in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Rainwater 130; Meeker 12). Glasgow no doubt had in mind Poe’s story when she had her narrator describe the “heavy cedars” and light-sucking windows of Dare’s Gift (49). However, Beckwith also insists, “Nowhere could I detect a hint of decay or dilapidation” (49). On the contrary, the house has taken on “wanton excrescences in the modern additions” (61). The “idea” persists and has taken further odd forms. This could be the “idea” of Southern Romanticism, the “idea” of a corrupt and devolutionary social and economic power structure, or the “idea” of the glory of war.

In fact, Lucy herself still lives; Lakeby has seen her recently in an old ladies’ home, where she sits “knitting—the omnipresent dun-colored muffler for the war relief associations,” this time for the “War to End All Wars,” the war of Glasgow’s own generation. An “idea” dies hard.

Ammons, Elizabeth. Confl icting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Glasgow, Ellen. “Dare’s Gift.” In The Shadowy Third and Other Stories. New York: Doubleday, 1923. ———. The Woman Within. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1954. Godbold, E. Stanly, Jr. Ellen Glasgow and the Woman Within. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972. Goodman, Susan. Ellen Glasgow: A Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Kelly, William W. Ellen Glasgow: A Bibliography. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1964. Matthews, Pamela R. Ellen Glasgow and a Woman’s Traditions. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994. Meeker, Richard. “Introduction.” In The Collected Stories of Ellen Glasgow. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963. Rainwater, Catherine. “Ellen Glasgow’s Outline of History in ‘The Shadowy Third.’ ” In The Critical Response to H. G. Wells, edited by William J. Scheick. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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