Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Ellen Glasgow's Barren Ground - American Hardy - The pathos of life is worse than the tragedy

Laird Hunt’s Zorrie reminded me strongly of an interesting bestseller from a century earlier, Ellen Glasgow’s Barren Ground (1925).  Glasgow takes 500 pages to cover thirty years of Dorinda Oakley’s life, while Hunt only needs 150 to cover fifty of Zorrie’s, but both women, after early struggles, become successful farmers, with much of each novel describing their lives as farmers.  Maybe “successful, independent female farmer” is a more common genre than I know.  Here are two examples, at least.

Dorinda, the protagonist of Barren Ground, is from a hardscrabble farm family, each year scratching out smaller crops from worse soil in the hill country of western Virginia.  She falls for the vivacious doctor’s son, but once he impregnates her he dumps her for the richest girl in the county.  Dorinda jumps a train for New York City, where she has a miscarriage and almost starts a new life – a different novel – but instead returns to the farm which she takes over by force of will, converting it, step by step, for two hundred pages, into a modern dairy supplying premium butter to Washington, D. C. hotels.  She marries a sensible man; she swallows the entire property of that rich girl and that dog of a boyfriend, now an alcoholic.  She is a great success.

Yet Barren Ground, from the title onwards, is among the most pessimistic American novels I have ever read, a genuine descendant of Thomas Hardy’s novels.  It is the closest thing to an American Hardy that I have ever seen, not just in its metaphysics but in its attention to landscape, and the metaphors of landscape.

But mostly the metaphysics:

For an instant, the permanence of material things, the inexorable triumph of fact over emotion, appeared to be the only reality. These things had been ageless when her mother was young; they would be still ageless when she herself had become an old woman. Over the immutable landscape human lives drifted and vanished like shadows.  (Pt. 2, Ch. 13, 345)

Dorinda is at this point looking over her own property, her own farm.  I believe that Barren Ground points to an interesting cultural idea.  American pessimism is rarely the subject of a novel.  Dorinda’s success does not make her happy; the failure of her former lover does not make her happy.  Her early scarring has somehow permanently removed the possibility of happiness, yet she works hard and succeeds regardless.  Glasgow is not preaching a simple “money can’t bring happiness” message – nothing can bring happiness:

His face was the face of someone who had come to the edge of the world and looked over.  It expressed not pain, nor despair even, but nothingness…  Again she thought: “Why am I here?  What is the meaning of it all?”  Again she felt as she had felt at her father’s death: “The pathos of life is worse than the tragedy.”  (Pt. 3, Ch. 9, 504-5)

The doctor’s son, the alcoholic, is at this moment dying, and Dorinda is caring for him not because she loves him anymore but as some kind of tribute to the moment when she did.  Here she is thirty years earlier, just after her betrayal:

If only one could get outside of it and stand a little way off, how ridiculous almost any situation in life would appear! Even those moments when she had waited in anguish at the fork of the road were tinged with irony when they revived now in her memory. "All the same I wouldn't go through them again for anything that life could offer," she thought.  (Pt. 2, Ch.3, 229)

Dorinda is an existentialist before existentialism.

Glasgow is quite good with landscape description, but the sad fact is that it was only about halfway through the novel that I began to realize how interesting it was, so my notes are inadequate for the descriptive side.  I did jot down a sentence I thought was hilarious, in a book that, like Zorrie, is humorless:

A stray sheep was bleating somewhere in the meadow, and it seemed to her that the sound filled the universe.  (Pt. 3, Ch. 11, 516)

The alcoholic has just died; the bathos is worse than the tragedy.

Ellen Glasgow was, once, America’s premier Southern writer, her South being Virginia.  She coined the term “Southern Gothic” as an attack on the upstarts like Faulkner who have now displace her, but she seems like she would be worth more attention.



  1. Sounds grim. But on the lighter note, while I have compiled scores of examples of dogs barking in the distance, this is the first "sheep bleating somewhere" trope I have seen. American inventiveness at its finest!

  2. In some Chekhov story, "a gull cried out, lonely and inconsolable." It serves the same purpose of the backdrop commenting on the drama.

    Trilling, in The Liberal Imagination had a few things to say about American pessimism back in 1949. I might blog about that someday if I can get better organized.

  3. I am not sure that the sheep line is good, but it is memorable. Fills the universe!

    Yes, please, blog about Trilling and pessimism. I know nothing about him, as much as i have read his name.