Places: Barren Ground

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1925

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedPedlar’s Mill

Pedlar’s Barren GroundMill. Fictional Virginia community located in fictional Queen Elizabeth County. Pedlar’s Mill is a rural, farming community whose inhabitants are embattled by their long and arduous struggles with poor soil that seems better suited for broomsedge and scrub pine than for cash crops. Pedlar’s Mill was around a century before the time in which the novel is set. It is a poor community, comprising primarily descendants of Scotch-Irish families who migrated from Virginia’s Shenandoah highlands to Virginia’s low country. Most come from families that have seen better times, both economically and socially.

The lives of Pedlar’s Mill residents are quite different from the romantic ideals popularly associated with the Old South in Ellen Glasgow’s time. They are not landed gentry living off the fat of the land and the labor of slaves; they survive by tilling their soil, planting seeds, tending crops, milking cows, and reaping meager harvests. Instead of ordering their lives around a chivalric code of manners, they grapple with the laws of nature, finding in them both a sense of continuity, as in the cycle of the seasons, and an unconquerable coarseness, represented by their inability to make headway against the ever-expanding and almost-impossible-to-eradicate broomsedge or their impoverished condition.

Old Farm

Old Farm. Farm owned by the Oakley family in which much of the novel’s first section, “Broomsedge,” is set. There, Dorinda’s parents, Joshua and Eudora, labor tirelessly to sustain their family and the estate left to them by Eudora’s grandfather. Joshua’s ineptness as a farmer and Eudora’s bleak, Calvinistic religious instincts push Dorinda to look beyond her immediate situation to find fulfillment elsewhere, first in a romantic dalliance with Jason Greylock and later in her travels to New York City. Eventually she returns to Old Farm, however, and after the deaths of her father and mother turns it into a profitable business, one made even more lucrative after she marries Nathan Pedlar and combines her estate with his.

Five Oaks

Five Oaks. Farm initially owned by the Greylocks and later purchased by Dorinda and Nathan after their marriage. Dr. Greylock had been a man of high social standing and considerable economic means before labor shortages and his addiction to alcohol led him to neglect his estate. As he sinks further into social degradation, which is made even greater in the minds of local white residents by the presence on the farm of several mulatto children rumored to be his offspring, Greylock comes to represent the opposite of the industry, frugality, and pragmatism that become the driving forces behind Dorinda’s success. Greylock’s son, Jason, likewise begins a downward spiral, leading Dorinda to wonder why she ever fell in love with him. Her subsequent marriage to Nathan Pedlar, based on practical economic concerns and not romantic love, and their joint purchase and revival of Five Oaks, demonstrate Dorinda’s ultimate triumph over the romantic follies of her youth.

*New York City

*New York City. Where Dorinda flees after learning of her jilting by Jason Greylock. The city’s stony pavement and the cold, impersonal nature of its buildings and inhabitants lead Dorinda to withdraw further into herself. Feeling depressed, she wanders through the urban landscape without direction, sickened unto dizziness by her self-pity. The full reality of the city finally crashes into her when she steps in front of a taxicab and is slammed to the pavement. A doctor named Faraday oversees her long recovery and in turn offers her a job as his office assistant and part-time attendant to his children. For the next two years she works steadily in New York and re-evaluates her life, determining in part from her vibrant urban environment that human experience is much more complex than her earlier romantic inclinations suggested. Armed with a more mature perspective, she returns to Old Farm after hearing of her father’s illness.

BibliographyBond, Tonette. “Pastoral Transformations in Barren Ground.” Mississippi Quarterly 32 (Fall, 1979): 565-576. Discusses how Glasgow shows Dorinda’s pastoral vision enabling her to re-create her internal and external landscapes. Relates Dorinda’s spiritual revitalization to that of the defeated South; both need imagination, energy, and innovation to reclaim the Arcadian ideal.Donovan, Josephine. After the Fall: The Demeter-Persephone Myth in Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989. Donovan describes Glasgow’s use of the resurrection myth in the mother-daughter relationship in Barren Ground, which reflects a shift from a traditional Southern view of male supremacy to a woman-identified world, both for Dorinda and for the author, in which “green world” values and the ethos of Demeter the Mother are affirmed.Ekman, Barbro. The End of a Legend: Ellen Glasgow’s History of Southern Women. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1979. A listing and discussion of Glasgow’s three basic types of Southern women and their subtypes includes the Victorian Woman, the Liberated Woman, and the “New Woman,” who can be either strong or inadequate.Glasgow, Ellen. The Woman Within. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1954. A somewhat self-pitying memoir that sometimes borders on the melodramatic, in which Glasgow presents herself as uniquely sensitive and suffering. Yet the autobiography is also a frank revelation of Glasgow’s inner feelings and an exercise in perceptive self-analysis, reflecting her interest in psychology and psychoanalysis, which she uses in her portrayal of Dorinda.Godbold, E. Stanly, Jr. Ellen Glasgow and the Woman Within. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972. A biography that describes Glasgow’s writing process and her efforts to give life meaning, establishing a code for living which enabled her to survive, but perhaps drained her humanity.Harrison, Elizabeth Jane. Female Pastoral: Women Writers Re-Visioning the American South. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. Considers Dorinda as a new type of pastoral heroine for her time. Suggests that she steals the role of hero from male characters in the novel and atones for this at the end.Jones, Anne Goodwyn. Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. An examination of several women writers. In the section on Glasgow, Jones examines the relationship between her obsession with love (in spite of her early rejection of Southern romanticism) and its negative depiction in her novels.Levy, Helen Fiddyment. Fiction of the Home Place: Jewett, Cather, Glasgow, Porter, Welty, and Naylor. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. Discusses the place of Barren Ground in Glasgow’s personal and literary development. Connects the author’s rejection of her female destiny and her desire for the independence and achievement allowed males with her heroine’s.McDowell, Frederick, P. W. Ellen Glasgow and the Ironic Art of Fiction. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960. A survey of her theory and practice of fiction which links Glasgow to the then-current literary use of modified naturalism, combining objectivity (realism) with irony.MacKethan, Lucinda H. Daughters of Time: Creating Woman’s Voice in Southern Story. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990. Presents an alternative to the view of Dorinda Oakley as someone who is barren and cold and rejects her traditional female role. Relates Dorinda’s life to the feminine through the Demeter myth that affirms nature, the life cycle, and female resiliency and strength.Raper, Julius Rowan. From the Sunken Garden: The Fiction of Ellen Glasgow, 1916-1945. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. A follow-up to his earlier book, Without Shelter: The Early Career of Ellen Glasgow (1971). Examining the second half of her writing life, Raper analyzes Glasgow’s concern with the evolution of the spirit and with heredity. Explores her use of traditional devices such as the foil, the double, and projection to create the psychologically rich inner lives of her characters.Raper, Julius Rowan. Without Shelter: The Early Career of Ellen Glasgow. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971. Examines the early writings in which Glasgow searched for what was enduring and universal in the face of the changing values and dying traditions of the post-Civil War South.Richards, Marion K. Ellen Glasgow’s Development as a Novelist. The Hague: Mouton, 1971. Focuses on her development as a writer, in particular on how she brought her central theme and character types to artistic maturity in Barren Ground.Santas, Joan Foster. Ellen Glasgow’s American Dream. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1965. Extrapolates from her novels Glasgow’s discovery of a newly envisioned but Southern-based American Dream, focused not on acquisitiveness but on the creation of a blessed, ideal community which valued an inner civilization, fortitude, a sense of duty, classlessness, and acceptance of the weak.Thiebaux, Marcelle. Ellen Glasgow. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982. Discusses three themes developed in Barren Ground: the feminist theme of the protagonist’s independent life; the Calvinist theme of her inheritance from her Scotch-Irish ancestors; and the agrarian theme of her attachment to the land.
Categories: Places