Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945)
Contributing Editor: Linda Pannill
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Glasgow fails to make the New Woman convincing. The philosopher Judith Campbell takes her iconoclastic new book from a muff and presents it ("my little gift") to the lover for whom she is willing to sacrifice a career. She does not perceive his jealousy of her own job offer. In dialogue she repeats his words back to him. That Judith Campbell seems more like a southern belle than a philosopher speaks to the power over heroine and perhaps author of an old-fashioned ideal of womanhood and to the difficulty for writers of Glasgow's generation who are working to create new characters and plots.
When teaching Glasgow's work, symbolism is a good place to start. Estbridge's idealism and his ruthlessness are seen in fire images: the portrait of Savonarola over a fireplace; the "flame" of love; "burned his boats"; burning his papers; the reference to the Grand Inquisitor. Other symbols include Judith's veils, the storm, Estbridge's name (East? China?), the Christmas setting (connected with his feeling "born anew" and her initials), and the doctor's garden. Judith is compared to a cypress, presumably like the one that did not survive. The remaining tree is a tough ailanthus, common though originally from China. Estbridge feels Judith is the "temptation" to disobey society's rules, but after all he will stay in his fallen garden with his sick wife. (That the younger colleague is named Adamson reinforces the Edenic motif, a favorite of the author's.)
The burden on a woman of trying to live up to a man's ideal, a theme throughout Glasgow's work, is interesting to the students. Yet they find Glasgow herself old-fashioned in her preoccupation with romantic love and with the goodness and beauty of her heroines. Along with the dire plots and the reappearances of weak male characters, this calls for an explanation that students will seek first in the author's life. They should be encouraged to look beyond.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Because of wide reading on the subject, Glasgow considered herself something of a philosopher. Like Judith Campbell, she wrote, and like her she had an affair in New York with a married man, by some accounts also a doctor. In The Woman Within, the author depicts a conflict in her own life between woman and artist roles, love and ambition. Neither choice seems right.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Irony underlines John Estbridge's self-centeredness and Judith Campbell's self-sacrifice, traits Glasgow found typical of men and women. Judith gives up an appointment at Hartwell College, previously her heart's desire, to run off with Estbridge. He misses the appointment with Judith to accept a faculty appointment. His is the "Professional Instinct," hers the "instinct to yield." A too-obvious irony is the timing of the traffic accident that gives Estbridge the opportunity to betray Judith (or the author the opportunity to rescue her).
Both Raper (in The Sunken Garden) and Godbold point to a letter from Pearce Baily, a prominent New York neurologist, advising Glasgow on the story. "The Professional Instinct" deals, of course, with a doctor who has helped a writer in her work. Ellen Glasgow decided not to publish the short story and seems not to have finished revising.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Mary Hunter Austin and Willa Cather, like Glasgow, were long considered regional writers, though not all their work is set in the desert Southwest or Nebraska, as not all Glasgow's is set in Virginia. Recent feminist scholarship emphasizes these authors' concern with sex roles and their problematic self-concepts as women writers.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Explain the allusion to Savonarola.
(b) Why is the point of view effective?
(c) Consider Tilly Estbridge and Judith Campbell as foil characters.
(d) What seems to be the target of Glasgow's satire?
(e) To what extent is the reader prepared for the ending?
(f) To what extent is Glasgow the literary realist she considers herself?
2. (a) Why might Glasgow have chosen not to publish the story?
(b) To what extent are both Judith Campbell and John Estbridge autobiographical characters?
(c) Ellen Glasgow considered herself a feminist. How is the feminism of her period (not our own) reflected in the story?
(d) In Glasgow's version of society, what kinds of power, if any, do women have?
(e) How might the influence of Darwinism and Social Darwinism be seen in Glasgow's depiction of the relationship between the sexes?
Glasgow, Ellen. The Woman Within. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1954. Chapters 1, 8-9.
Wagner, Linda. Ellen Glasgow: Beyond Convention. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982. Chapter 1.