Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Glasgow's Psychology of Deceptions and the Sheltered Life

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Glasgow's Psychology of Deceptions and the Sheltered Life

Article excerpt

If intensity is a key to the value of a novel, then The Sheltered Life (1932) must hold a special position among Ellen Glasgow's books, for it is the culmination of strong currents that run through her earlier life and works. It is her most successful re-working of a painfully fruitful episode paralleled often in her novels, the bizarre shooting death of her brother-in-law and intellectual guide, Walter McCormack. It is also her most intense drama of deceptions, the fulfillment of a theme she had experimented with since her second novel: the way minds sheltered from reality develop habits of self-deception. (1)

In The Sheltered Life the novelist exploits the social metaphor (whereby social exchanges of a small community suggest habits of thought and behavior of the world at large) to portray the ironic tragedy of Southern womanhood and, by gentle suggestion, the tragedy of the tradition of Western idealism which culminated in the events of 1914. The heroine of the drama is Southern woman, whose facets we see presented with seriousness in Eva Birdsong, the belle of a golden time now grown middle-aged, and mirrored with comedy in Jenny Blair Archbald, the fledgling belle of a fallen age. The order within which and against which these two struggle for self-realization, the order which inevitably deflects their agon in the direction of tragic recognition, we find embodied in aging General Archbald and adulterous George Birdsong, the best and the lovable worst of Southern manhood. The trait these four share and the major theme of the novel is the habit of deception, chiefly the often amusing but ultimately dangerous self-deception of romantic idealists.

The deceptions of George Birdsong, the all too human villain of the story, require little comment. He is exceedingly handsome, generous to a fault, and imperfectly faithful. Wed to Eva, the greatest beauty of the 1890's, he takes advantage of his wife's faith in his love and of his own charm and looks to seduce any attractive woman who comes his way. Less blind than the other characters, he freely admits that he lacks the strength of character to control his own roving nature and recognizes that at eighteen Jenny Blair's flirtatious innocence is wicked. (2) Yet Birdsong deceives himself when he chooses biology as an alibi, blames his weakness on birth, and uses this to explain if not excuse his various escapes from responsibility through sport, women and drink (251). It is his decision to accept weakness as the essence of his character that allows him to be trapped by Jenny Blair in their feverish affair.

Birdsong is not alone in permitting a limited view of the self to lead him along the path of destruction. Jenny Blair, Eva and the General are equally given to this form of self-deception, although the pernicious qualities of the roles they have elected to play are less immediately apparent.

In one of the most informative early descriptions of Jenny Blair, Glasgow suggests the theory of personality she has in mind for all her characters: "From the warm mother-of-pearl vagueness within, a fragment of personality detached itself, wove a faint pattern of thought, and would gradually harden into a shell over her mind" (4). This is a rather poetic way of saying that Jenny's "personality" evolves from a vague impulse which she rationalizes, then allows to harden into a dominant way of viewing herself; as such, it becomes, of course, a major determinant of her behavior. The impulse which drives her when she is nine-and-a-half is very general and libidinal, the simple desire to put down books, leave libraries and escape into Life: "I'm alive, alive, and I'm Jenny Blair Archbald," she sings to the rhythm of life. She moves quickly from this impulse to the view that she is "different" because she has a "hidden self" of which her mother has no knowledge. This hidden self provides an excuse when she disobeys her mother and the alibi for all the little perversities that make up her rebellion against the world of Little Women where her mother still lives (43). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.