Ellen Glasgow's novel Barren Ground relates the lives of Dorinda Oakley and Jason Greylock. More than this, however, the novel reveals itself, in layers, to deal with issues that exceed the boundaries of characterization. In telling its tale of Dorinda and Jason, Barren Ground delves into many feminist issues. The overriding and unmistakable message of the book is empowerment.

Dorinda begins as a frail, frightened creature, looking for no more than to find a husband, and settle into a life with him outside of Pedlar's Mill. Jason offers this opportunity as a doctor visiting the town, who will soon leave. They are both attracted to each other for a variety of reasons, however, it's made apparent through Dorinda's thoughts that it is the provincial and traditional nature of Jason that truly attracts her to him. Their thoughts are pervaded by these traditional roles, thus it is these roles that serve to trap them in situations that are destined to make their lives unsatisfying. It's only by stepping outside of traditional and accepted behavior that Dorinda is able to begin to make a life for herself. The shame of becoming pregnant forces her to leave her home for New York to discover who she is.

Upon returning to Pedlar's Mill she finds that she has grown considerably. She considers the town and its denizens to be unenlightened, and she uses her newly found strength to forge a happier life for herself and her family. Dorinda fights for each success, and it is this fight that succeeds in making her satisfied. The accomplishments are remarkable, but the underlying reason for her satisfaction is that she accomplishes these feats alone. By refusing to think as a woman, that is, in traditional "feminine" ways, she achieves more than she had ever had hoped.

Jason, however, by failing to escape the role designed for him by his father, and by society, leads a life that ultimately destroys him. As Dorinda took control of her life, Jason relinquished his personal control. Dorinda is ultimately responsible for her ascent to actualization, whereas Jason, merely being led, can only be blamed for his lack of personal courage. The results of his actions, or rather his lack of action, must ultimately be blamed on a society which set him up to fail.

There are some similarities between the messages in Glasgow's novel and Cathy Lee Peiss' Cheap Amusements (Temple University Press, 1986). Peiss points to the women as being trapped in a system that not only precludes their escape, but also encourages them to desire their powerlessness. She points to a system at the turn of the century where women would work at low paying jobs, and be forced to give all of their money to their parents. This wasn't an absolute situation, however it was pervasive. The women would be forced to find other methods of entertainment that required little or no money. One option was to date.

In traditional dating, men would be expected to bear the costs involved in any activity. Women would enjoy the time spent out of the home, and would also use this system to find a husband, which, of course, they needed to be truly happy.

This system obviously robs women of economic and social power, locking them into certain modes of action. Perhaps less obvious, but just as disempowering, is the way in which the system locked men into constricting social roles. Where women didn't have to concern themselves with money, men did-- exclusively. Without money men would not be able to date women and find the wives, that they needed so desperately, in order to be truly happy.

Glasgow and Peiss wrote about systems of oppression, both active and passive. In both cases, gender roles ultimately led people to unsatisfactory lives, or lives which were lacking in perspective and richness of experience. The fact that they wrote nearly a century apart is overshadowed by the shared contemporary tone.

Any older book that can still capture an aspect of the modern Zeitgeist must be considered important and worthwhile. If Barren Ground remains poignant after seventy-five years, it not only comments on the value of the message, but what does it mean for men and women who have been fighting systems of oppression, struggling against gender roles? A century later, what progress has been made if they are still trapped and enslaved by societal expectations-- if they've succeeded in only mutually trapping each other?

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