Friday, June 15, 2012

Ellen Glasgow--Barren Ground (1925)

This beautiful novels follows the life of protagonist Dorinda Oakley, a woman from very rural Virginia, for thirty years.  Dorinda, daughter of a landpoor farmer in Virginia, at 20 goes to work in Nathan Pedlar's store. She falls in love with Jason Greylock, weakwilled son of the village doctor, and forgets her purpose of helping her father to rebuild the farm.  However, the day before their planned wedding Jason instead marries a former fiancée, later claiming that he was forced to marry her. Bitterly disillusioned and pregnant, Dorinda seeks work in New York, where she is injured and miscarries after being hit by a taxi. She is attended by Dr. Faraday, who later employs her as a nurse for his children. 

Dorinda returns to the family farm as her father is dying, finding the farm impoverished and overgrown with broomsedge. Having studied scientific agriculture in New York, she introduces progressive methods, gradually returning the “barren ground” to fertility and creating a prosperous dairy farm. Her mother becomes an invalid, after her brother Rufus is questioned for murder, so that Dorinda must carry on with only the aid of a few farm laborers. After her mother's death she marries Nathan Pedlar, to provide a home for his children.  Though she doesn’t love Nathan with the same romance with which he loves her, she has real respect for Nathan which allows the two of them to have a rather stable and financially successful marriage.  Nathan, often overlooked because of his lack of looks and quiet ways, dies a hero’s death after rescuing people from a train accident.  After he dies she shelters Jason, now penniless and ill from excessive drinking. He soon dies.  The novel ends with Dorinda taking to her own bed, echoing her own mother’s final admission of exhaustion.  

Throughout the novel, Dorinda struggles with desire for happiness, contentment, and ease of mind: they seem to be incompatible.  After her young romance with Jason which leaves her emotionally (and physically) scarred, Dorinda is insistent on putting such sentimental nonsense behind her.  This struggle between sentiment and pragmatism is an overarching throughout the novel: not just in relationships between people, but also in the relationship between people and the land.  While Dorinda may (mostly) be able to keep her feelings for other people outside the realm of the sentimental, her attachment to the land and her family farm is another story.  Certainly, the hard work which Dorinda invests in her family farm does pay off, but also reveals what emotional attachments are beyond her control.  Even the sections of the novel—“Broomsedge,” “Pine,” and “Life Everlasting”—are plant names used as metaphors to illustrate Dorinda’s relationship to herself and the land.  

This is a beautifully written and moving novel.  Pre-dating both Tobacco Road and Gone with the Wind (and even Cold Mountain), it seems to be to have been a strong influence on both of them.  My only complaint is the rather uneven treatment of race throughout.  African Americans throughout the novel are consistently characterized as an inferior and lazy race, despite the outstanding individuals such as Fluvella, without whose support Dorinda simply wouldn’t have survived.  Compared to others in the novel, Dorinda’s racism is perhaps a more benevolent form, but her failure to grasp the real-life conditions of the African Americans on whose labor her own survival depends is a weakness in an otherwise sensitive depiction of a life struggling against rural poverty.

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