Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

History in Barren Ground and Vein of Iron: Theory, Structure, and Symbol

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

History in Barren Ground and Vein of Iron: Theory, Structure, and Symbol

Article excerpt

Ellen Glasgow asserts in The Woman Within that "Surely one of the peculiar habits of circumstances is the way they follow, in their eternal recurrence, a single course. If an event happens once in a life, it may be depended upon to repeat later its general design." (1) She apparently translated this sense of the movement of personal history into a structural and thematic aesthetic in Barren Ground and Vein of Iron. The lives of Dorinda Oakley and Ada Fincastle adhere to and are structured by a theory of history which insists that individual history is an endless, repetitive pattern of human endeavor, always ending in less than fulfillment, against the conflicting forces of will and desire.

Glasgow discusses many levels of history in the novels: universal, social, familial, and individual, with the last serving as the main symbol for articulation and definition of the rest. She defines collective, universal history in terms of the other three. Social history is determined by a series of cataclysms which produce existence-defining symbols operating within a basic, repetitive framework. The Civil War produced the system of tenant farming and hence the particular land which serves as symbol in Barren Ground; World War I foreshadows the dying of the previous culture and the onslaught of a mechanistic society. In Vein of Iron the effects of the first World War, with its mechanistic symbols, are the ground upon which Ada struggles as does Dorinda with the land.

Similarly, familial history is asserted as following the same general pattern of cataclysm and struggle in social history. Great emphasis is placed on the power of ancestral heritage in the two novels. Both Dorinda and Ada have, in their ancestral past, figures who stood against social cataclysm and change, figures who possess the "vein of iron," and who not only survived but also triumphed over the circumstances of their lives. These ancestors are responsible for founding a family line and for establishing the houses in which Dorinda and Ada are born and to which they inevitably return. Both are made aware of the vitality of their ancestral past by these symbolic structures and by their inheritance of that "vein of iron" which ensures the continuity and revitalizing of their familial histories. (2) We learn that each had pioneer ancestors who weathered the shock of settling new land and Indian Wars, and ancestors who more recently underwent the Civil War. These forebears managed, in their survival, to pass along the basic pioneer spirit. (3) The same repetitive pattern, with new forms for each generation, is as evident in familial as in social history: cataclysm, struggle, winding down, and resurgence.

Individual history, which receives Glasgow's most avid attention, is actually an acute, personalized rendering of the basic pattern of social and familial history. The individual usually receives an emotional shock, the result of the endless struggle between human will and desire, the memory of which reverberates throughout life. The cataclysmic event, which always centers in impulsive passion, produces a definition of existence for the individual which is articulated by the ensuing struggle to gain personal solidity. The reverberations of the event diminish in intensity with the passage of time and the success of the struggle against the shock, and finally run down with the ending of the individual's life. Though the immediate force of the personal pattern subsides and ends with the individual, the history of the individual is transported as part of familial, social, and universal history. Glasgow insists that the process on the individual level, with its inevitable winding down, is not one of entropic dissolution, but rather, that another individual will be defined by the same process asserted in another set of symbolic experiences.

Both Barren Ground and Vein of Iron are controlled by Glasgow's conception of history asserted aesthetically and thematically in Dorinda and Ada. …

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