This novel was a strange trip for me—at various times over the course of reading the book, it becomes really distinct and different stories. Is it a romance? A reflection on aging and generational values? A “problem novel” grappling with race and class? A sort of bildungsroman for young women in the late 1930s? In the end, it does none of these things really consistently or well. A more charitable reader might argue that the novel is intended to be complex, and to straddle a lot of different kind of stories in order to represent “this our life” in all its multiple guises. This reader thinks it’s a poorly managed novel that shows just how important it is for a novelist to not only have talent at the sentence level (that is, crafting nice turns of phrase, etc.) but at the level of the plot outline. Now, you can get away with a plot that isn’t really well plotted and still create art, if you are a genius doing something totally daring and non-linear—if you are, say, Umberto Eco, or Italo Calvino, maybe David Foster Wallace. But if this novel proves anything, it’s that Ellen Glasgow and Italo Calvino should not be mentioned together in any sentence. Other than that one.
So, what is this work? I’d argue, based on the ending, that Glasgow ultimately decides she wants to be writing an existential novel—the universe she finally articulates is cruel and meaningless. There are essentially two kinds of people in the book: selfish people who steamroll everyone around them in the name of finding their own happiness, and the selfless people who get walked on as a result. The selfish people find the happinesses they achieve to be so fleeting and hollow that they ultimately would have been better off never aiming at it in the first place. The selfless people find that sacrifice brings nothing but heartache and the realization that they will never even know fleeting happiness. I can’t remember the last time I read a bleaker novel, a book more thoroughly pessimistic about the human condition and its hopelessness. When, by the book’s end, one of our more “selfless” characters walks out into the night because she cannot imagine how to go on living, or what to go on living for, within the confines of the novel’s picture of reality, I honestly think she’s right. In a world that looks like this one, suicide is probably the best option—she may not avail herself of that outcome, but someone else does, and it’s hard to argue that they aren’t luckier than most of the people Glasgow kicks around in the whole last half of the book.
Now, existentialism is a proud tradition—you might be thinking I’m being pretty narrow-minded and unfair to bash this book because it’s existentialist. But I really have to emphasize this: I don’t think this is good existentialism. I’ve read some Kirkegaard, and some Sartre. They’re not necessarily my cup of tea, but they were grappling with something real, and however tough it might be to handle what they say at times, they’re never as pointlessly abusive as this book gets. It’s not clear to me that Glasgow had any real purpose for this project: it certainly doesn’t start out existentialist. Like I said, she goes through a ton of novels as the book progresses—she starts all sorts of threads that just get dropped or badly “wrapped up” in the final chapters. Somehow she wrote herself into an ending that’s just ugly to slog through, with a bunch of characters being vile for no real purpose that I can see, and with absolutely no attempts on her part to try to really illuminate any of this and help us understand anything more usefully. It would be one thing if the novel was a clear attempt by a novelist who sincerely wants to dramatically explore the idea that “man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains”. But it’s something very different to feel like you’re reading a book written by someone who was either uncreative enough or depressed enough (or both) to end up chaining all the characters down accidentally, and who decided to just ride that train to the very bottom of the valley and see how dark it could get.
At least three of these characters would make my list of the 10 worst human beings I’ve encountered so far in the 20+ Pulitzer winners I’ve read, and that’s despite the fact that (at most) only one of them is responsible for the death of another human being. And I’ll take the criticism openly that I do prefer novels where I find something to admire in the characters—that’s true, and it’s certainly a bias that operates. But I think it’s only fair for me to argue that truly meretricious characters, characters whose lives really are cruel and heartless and almost irredeemable, are characters that the novelist at least needs to explore. You want to make a 20 year old girl into a monster, someone who has been so spoiled by her family that her insatiable appetite for pleasure destroys the lives of everyone she touches? Fine—but make her real. Force me to see how she might get that way, what it might be like for her to sincerely see the world that way. Let me learn something from having known her. Don’t just make her a cardboard character so awful I cringe whenever she shows up and practically boo and hiss her “off stage” until she disappears. I can name plenty of bad, even evil, characters in fiction that I think are great to read, and whose books/plays/poems I think are fantastic. Those characters are written in a way that Glasgow can’t manage. In the end, as I said from early on, too much of this is soap opera—unworthy of the Pulitzer brand, and unworthy of most people’s time.
I’ll say this much—I think that a lot of the issues this novel raises were real issues in the 1940s. Racism covered with a (very thin) veneer of alleged “open-mindedness”. Licentiousness, infidelity, broken families, suicide, alcoholism, homicide. The works. And I think it’s useful for a society that has idolized that particular generation (this so-called “Greatest Generation“) and that has cloaked that era in sepia-toned awe of the beauty of middle-class American life in its golden age to really confront what it was like then. I know from researching my family’s history (and my wife’s) that we only think that our “modern” social problems started with the Pill and rock’n’roll and hippies, or whatever it is that America’s moral scolds want to wave around as the reason American culture and American families are the way they are today. All of those things I listed at the beginning of this paragraph are in our two family trees (well, I may be wrong about homicide, but certainly the rest) from 1960 stretching back to 1860 or so. I’ll credit Glasgow with writing a book that doesn’t sugar-coat what it’s actually like to live in Virginia in the late 1930s. But it’s really weak where it should be strong—while the problems are there, the novel is too shallow to really try to make sense of what they are or how they come to be. The suicide, for example, involves a character we do not know well, whose inner life is never explored, and the suicide occurs well “off screen” several chapters after the last time we saw the character. We do get at least some kind of realistic contemplation of the aftermath of suicide on an allegedly respectable Southern family, but too much is unexplored. Racism should be the perfect topic for this book to address, given the events that occur, but the novel only wallows in (and, to some extent, reinforces) racist ideas and attitudes, and never really confronts race, much less provides any African-American character with psychological depth and importance. In the end, the novel raises some really useful questions about our image of America in the 1930s/1940s, but it does very little to shed light on them. Certainly it gets better marks here than other novels do, but it’s well below the best in this category.
By my unscientific scale, I give this a “Why bother thinking harder about these characters than the author did?” There are some good moments in the novel, a couple of which I’ve written about earlier. And I think there could potentially be some value in trying to work with the existential crises that grip our two most central characters late in the novel. But really, I had to read a long time before I hit anything worth my time, and I felt the final chapters were terribly constructed, a forced ending that waves its hands screaming “Isn’t this oh so very deep and provocative?!?” but without really earning that kind of serious reflection. Ultimately most of the characters are too thin to serve as anything but cutouts for the plot, while the plot itself is too threadbare and slapdash to provide any real satisfaction. The ending, furthermore, undercuts what little energy the plot has at that point, by sabotaging the novel’s few options for a meaningful resolution of any of the book’s central conflicts. So I wouldn’t waste my time if I were you. I can recommend many better Pulitzer winners (to say nothing of the non-Pulitzer-winning novels) and I hope you’ll spend time with one of them instead.
The Last Word:
By custom, the review finishes with Glasgow’s words—her final appeal (admittedly, one curated by me) to win you over if she can. Here’s a passage from relatively late in the novel that at least captures some of the depth I think Glasgow was trying for by that point: Sidney Timberlake (the aforementioned monstrous 20 year old girl) is in a tense conversation with her father, Asa. He’s just returned from seeing their rich relative, Uncle William—he was supposed to ask William for money so that a heartbroken Sidney can travel the world and “forget her problems”, but Asa has to deliver the news that William is unwell, and unable to accommodate her request. Asa says,
“Wait until he’s himself again, and feeling his oats. There are times, though you’ll never believe it, when waiting is the best policy.”
“You don’t know,” she cried angrily, and burst into tears. “You don’t know how it feels to be wasting your life.”
There was a sudden chill in his heart, a streak of ice, as he looked at her. With all the piled-up agony in the world, with all the pain and the bitterness and the destruction which she had caused, had nothing ever made the faintest dent in her armor of egoism? Is there any hope for humanity? he thought. Is there any hope of making a civilized world so long as we are imprisoned in a multitude of separate cells? “Why are you so sure?” he asked. “How do you know what I have felt?”
Her face quivered, and she looked up at him through a rain of tears. “You’re cruel. Oh, you’re cruel, all of you! Even Mother, who used to love me best, has turned against me since I came home.”
The chill melted within, and the old irrational softness invaded his thoughts. She would always win in the end, not with him alone, but with other men also; and she would win, he told himself, not through strength, but through some inner weakness, whether her own or another’s.