Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Erotic Economy of Ellen Glasgow's Barren Ground: How Success Almost Spoiled Dorinda Oakley

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Erotic Economy of Ellen Glasgow's Barren Ground: How Success Almost Spoiled Dorinda Oakley

Article excerpt

Although Barren Ground is Ellen Glasgow's most critically acclaimed novel, less attention has been paid to the novel's overall meaning than to Glasgow's poignant portrayal of her protagonist, Dorinda Oakley. In his biography of Ellen Glasgow, E. Stanley Godbold concludes that "Dorinda Oakley could have been created only by an embittered and cynical woman" and that "more than any other character in her novels, Dorinda Oakley is Ellen Glasgow" (137). These provocative statements dare us to take a closer look at Glasgow's novel Barren Groundin order to decide for ourselves just what Glasgow's character actually shares with her creator. In Glasgow's somewhat enigmatic 1933 preface to the Old Dominion edition of Barren Ground, she does sympathize with Dorinda's dilemma; however, I believe that she also establishes a clear demarcation between author and character, saying, "Though I wrote always toward an end that I saw ... Dorinda was free" (viii). Moreover, when Glasgow states that Dorinda "exists wherever a human being has learned to live without joy, wherever the spirit of fortitude has triumphed over the sense of futility" (viii), Glasgow clearly distances herself from Dorinda's bitterness, since she proclaims in the same preface that the experience of writing Barren Ground gave her a joyous renewal in living:

   All the forms in which I had thought and by which I had lived, even the
   substance of things and the very shape of my universe had shifted and
   changed.... In Barren Ground, ... I felt that the scene, apart from the
   human figures, possessed an added dimension, a universal rhythm deeper and
   more fluid than any material texture. Beneath the lights and shadows there
   is the brooding spirit of place, but, deeper still, beneath the spirit of
   place there is the whole movement of life. (vii-viii)

Instead of praising the solid "material texture" that objectifies human existence, Glasgow indicates that, in this novel, she focused upon depicting the deeper human impulses that evoke "the whole movement of life." This vision of a fluid reality, one she terms as the "added dimension," is found, however, only when the complete "scene" of her creation is taken into account rather than simply the one-dimensional perspective of her female protagonist, Dorinda.

Therefore, I propose that if the relationship between author and character in Barren Ground is recognized as sympathetic but nevertheless antagonistic, cynicism does not characterize Barren Ground; instead, it reveals Glasgow's validation, not repudiation, of emotional impulses and the desire for pleasure over work. Indeed, I will argue that throughout the novel, Glasgow's narrator portrays Dorinda's erotic sensibility as the inextinguishable scintilla of her life--an impulse toward joy that connects her to "the whole movement of life."

The emotional urgency found in Glasgow's preface to Barren Ground is similar to the anti-rational stance of her autobiography, The Woman Within. In this autobiography, Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra is deemed a "great prose-poem" (91). Glasgow was interested in German philosophy for most of her life, and although she read Nietzsche's work in the 1890s, her alliance with Nietzsche is clearly visible in the Preface to Barren Ground and, as I will argue, in the deeper meaning of the novel itself. (1) Specifically, I want to suggest that Glasgow's understanding of Nietzschean philosophy in Barren Ground anticipates Nietzsche's other admirer, French literary critic and philosopher, Georges Bataille. When Bataille explains that "Nietzsche's cry recalls the cry we would need to give out, with all our strength, in dreaming" (Accursed 3:370), he mirrors Glasgow's depiction of the repressed Dorinda, whose dreams and erotic impulses continually cry out, undercutting her satisfaction with material success. Bataille's philosophy also resonates with Glasgow's privileging of a "universal rhythm" over "material texture. …

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