Barren Ground (1925)

by Ellen Glasgow

Barren Ground takes a more realistic view of the South’s love for the land than a sentimental novel like Gone with the Wind. Dorinda, the main character, indeed finds her calling and salvation from farming, but it requires the sacrifice of everything else in life to hard, brutal, never-ending labor.

In the early pages of Barren Ground, the teenage Dorinda is growing up on Virginia farm depleted by unscientific practices. A young neighbor doctor is her hope for escape, but he jilts her just before their wedding date. Dorinda runs off to New York City, returning to the farm two years later when her father is dying. She decides to be done with love and devote her life to saving the farm through progressive methods. She succeeds, but at a price in her personal life. Dorinda never has another passionate romance. She ultimately reweds but insists on a celibate marriage. So, does the title Barren Ground refer to the land or to Dorinda? Maybe ultimately to neither. Dorinda is productive in the sphere in which she chose to operate. She turns around a farm that was fallow.

When Barren Ground was published in 1925, some critics were put off by the character of a woman who was unsentimental, independent, and self-determining — a woman who lived for something other than love. Although such a woman is more accepted today, the complex character of Dorinda is still fascinating and a fertile subject for discussion. Intermittently, Dorinda reflects about her choice, as if she’s still trying to convince herself years later. Glasgow wrote that Dorinda “exists wherever a human being has learned to live without joy” but that writing Barren Ground had renewed her own joy. Glasgow had several love interests throughout her life but felt she did her best work when love was over.


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