Barren Ground by Ellen Glasgow (1925)
James Ellgood – owner of Green Acres, his land flourishes b/c he has invested in it
old Mathew –
Dr. Greylock – owner of Five Oaks, doctor, drunkard
Joshua Oakley – Dorinda’s father, hard worker, from “poor white” class
Eudora Abernethy Oakley – Dorinda’s mother, religious, nervous
John Calvin Abernethy – Eudora’s grandfather, came to Peddlar’s Mill as a returned missionary from Indian and Ceylon in the early 1800s, Scotch-Irish
William Golden Penner – owner of Old Farm before John Calvin Abernethy
John Calvin Abernathy’s son – Eudora’s father, died in middle age felling an oak
Josiah Oakley – Dorinda’s older brother, values prettiness in women - first wife dies in childbirth, later marries Elvira Snead
Dorinda Oakley – protagonist, black hair, blue eyes
Rufus Oakley – Dorinda’s younger brother, spoiled, dislikes farming
Rambler – dog
Flossie - cat
Butcher – lame negro who pumps water for the train engines
Nathan Pedlar – proprietor of Pedlar’s store, unattractive but dependable, innovative farmer
Rose Emily Pedlar – Nathan’s wife, better educated and higher class than him, dies of consumption
Jason Greylock – son of Dr. Greylock, pressured by him to study medicine and then return and stay until his father’s death, attractive
Mathew Fairlamb – old man, once best carpenter
Geneva Ellgood – daughter of James Ellgood, sickly, blonde, not beautiful
Bob Ellgood – son of James Ellgood, marries a sickly wife, later courts Dorinda
Gordon Kane – Eudora’s first lover, a missionary, killed before their marriage
Minnie May Pedlar – Rose Emily and Nathan’s oldest daughter, a born mother, ten years old when her mother dies
Bud – Rose Emily and Nathan’s son, later manages a store
Lena – Rose Emily and Nathan’s daughter, grows up to be a beauty and a flirt
Mrs. Flower – dying at the same time as Rose Emily
Black Tom – county idiot
Miss Texanna Snead – postmistress, lives with sisters on Honeycomb farm
Seena Snead - dressmaker, lives with sisters on Honeycomb farm
Tabitha Snead - dressmaker, lives with sisters on Honeycomb farm
William Snead – the younger brother, recently returned with some property
Elvira Snead – Josiah Oakley falls in love with an marries
Adam Snead – Elvira’s thriftless father
Brother Tyburn – gospel wagon rider
Mrs. Tyburn – putting up religious signs with her husband
John Appleseed – farmer, named himself
Billy Appleseed – John’s idiot son
Aunt Mehitable Green – old conjure woman, attended Dorinda’s birth, can conjure away moles and liver spots, as a slave had belonged to the Cumberlands
Greens, Moodys and Plumptrees – represent the black aristocracy of Pedlar’s Mill
Micajah Green – Aunt Mehitable’s oldest son, recently bought from Nathan Pedlar the farm he had worked as tenant, studied horse sickness with Mr. Kettledrum
Mr. Kettledrum – horse doctor
Moses Green – Mehitable’s son, works on railroad
Abraham Green – Mehitable’s son, works with Micajah
Eliphalet Green – Mehitable’s son, leasing land from Mr. Garlick
Jemima Green – Mehitable’s daughter, working at Five Oaks
Almire Pryde – Joshua Oakley’s niece
great aunt Dorinda – tried to drown herself when she couldn’t marry the man she wanted, but then settled down and married sensibly
great aunt Abigail – went crazy over love and had to be locked up, but got over it and became a missionary
great aunt Rebekah – never went crazy over men
great aunt Priscilla – never went crazy over men
Harry Kettledrum – Mr. Kettledrum’s brother John’s son, who lives in New York and works at the wholesale grocer Bartlett and Tribble
Doctor Faraday – witnesses Dorinda’s accident, cares for her
Mrs. Faraday – fat, many kids
English governess – of the Faraday children
French teacher – of the Faraday children
Penelope Faraday – daughter, fond of Dorinda, Dorinda nurses pneumonia
Richard Burch – young doctor, loves Dorinda
Ebeneezer Green – field hand Nathan finds to work for Dorinda, big and strong but given to becoming lost in reverie
Peter Plumtree – field hand Nathan finds to work for Dorinda
Toby Jackson – field hand Nathan finds to work for Dorinda
Rapian Finley – field hand Nathan finds to work for Dorinda
Adam Snead – thriftless farmer
Mary Joe – Ebeneezer’s sister, looks after Dorinda’s hen house
Rubby – young black girl, keeps flies off of Joahua when he is dying
Peter Kittery – Rufus kills
Leona Prince – new dressmaker
Ezra Flower - auctioneer
Mrs. Ellgood – plays violin, not a country girl
Molly Garlick – on train with Nathan, had gone to concert with Mrs. Ellgood
Nimrod – black, works for Dorinda, had waited to pick Nathan up from train
Elisha – black, brings Dorinda news of the train
Jasper – Elisha’s son
Idabella – mulatto woman at Five Oaks
Ike Pryde – thriftless farmer, finds Jason out of his head at the cabin
Pedlar’s Mill, Queen Elizabeth County, VA
Old Farm (Oakley’s farm)
Five Oaks (Greylock’s farm)
Part First: Broomsedge
Dorinda stands at the window of Pedlar’s store in an orange shawl, snow falling without. Background of the area and her family. The Oakleys are “land poor” on a dilapidated farm. Modern farming methods have not reached this rural are of Virginia, and tenant farming has depleted the soil which is rapidly taken over by broomsage. Old Farm was bought by Eudora’s grandfather John Calvin Abernathy and went directly to her because her father died felling a tree in his middle age. Eudora’s husband Joahua Oakley was a member of the poor white class and, “worked hard, after the manner of his class, to lose everything that was left” of what Abernathy had saved.
To Dorinda, the poverty of the soil seems immutable. Mrs. Pedlar is ill with consumption, and for the past year Dorinda has taken her place working beside Nathan Pedlar at Pedlar’s store. She is in high spirits because she met Jason Greylock on her way to work in the morning and he seems to offer an out of the futility around her. As she gets ready to leave, old Mathew Fairbanks stops by and embarrasses her by mentioning a potential match between the two. He also warns that Jason is at risk of getting sucked into Five Oaks – “if he’d listen to the warnin’ of eighty-odd years, he’d git away before the broomsage ketches him. That’s one thing sartain sure, you’ve got to conquer the land in the beginning, or it’ll conquer you before you’re through with it” (16). Dorinda goes up to see Rose Emily before she leaves, in the room where she crochets while her eldest child Minnie May plays with two younger children (Bud and Lena) and a baby sleeps. Nathan has given Dorinda somem sugar for her mother, and Rose Emily sends a pat of butter. They discuss Dorinda buying a new cow and it seems odd to Dorinda to discuss these details with Rose Emily dying. Rose Emily has talked to Jason Greylock about Dorinda, and it seems to her that everyone is pushing them together. As Dorinda leaves, Rose Emily assures her, as she always does, that she plans on getting up the next day.
Dorinda starts her walk home in a blissful mood of discovery. “All around her people were pretending that insignificant things were the only important things” (27). She thinks about how nice the Ellgood’s red cow Blossom is and how she’d like to buy her. Jason Greylock overtakes her in his buggy, assures her that he remembers her, and offers her a ride to Old Farm. Jason talks sensibly about farming, which is not a topic that interests her, and she says that it must be dreary for him being back. Jason asks if she has ever wanted to get away and she says she used to listen for the trains but has gotten over it – she does not say that this is because if his arrival. Jason talks of enlightening the locals with some modern ideas about farming. When he drops her off he says, “Don’t forget me. I shall see you soon,” and the phrase echoes in her ears (36).
Eudora Oakley suffers from religious depression as well as neuralgia and feels the need to be constantly in motion, working. When Dorinda mentions the sugar and butter, Eudora thinks of Buckwheat pancakes for Rufus and not of herself. She mentions buying Blossom and, always contrary, Josiah doesn’t like the idea. Eudora barely eats. They pray when Eudora is done washing up – this is the only thing that can keep her still, and when any family member rebels she argues, “If it wasn’t for the help of my religion, I could never keep going” (46). Eudora insists on staying up late to wash some towels, arguing that she does not need as much sleep as the rest of them.
Eudora lets Dorinda sleep in, and she gets up regretting how hard her mother works and that she doesn’t have anything nicer to wear (Jason has said he will drive her to and from work when he meets her in the road). Rufus eats the last of the butter without thought of Dorinda or Eudora. On the way to work, Dorinda runs into a Gospel wagon putting up signs. She directs them to stop by Old Farm – it is more work for her mother, but she enjoys the rare visits. When Jason picks Dorinda up, he is worn from a sleepless night with his father. He is also discouraged because he had planned a meeting on modern farming methods the previous night in the schoolhouse but only Nathan Pedlar and the idiot son of John Appleseed had come. She says that she would do anything to help him and he suggests that she wear a blue dress the color of her eyes.
On her way up the steps to the store, Dorinda meets Seena Snead who asks if she needs anything from Richmond. Dorinda asks her to get material for a blue dress the color of her eyes, and when Seena mentions Geniva Ellsgood’s fancy dress and hat, she adds a hat to the order as well. She plans to pay with the money she had meant to spend for the cow. Geneva Ellgood makes an order from her buggy and when her brother Bob, coming in to pick it up, loiters admiring Dorinda, she comes in to hurry him. Dorinda waits on Aunt Mehitable Green, an old black woman, thought to be a conjure woman, who attended Dorinda’s birth and has come to trade two ducks for coffee and Jamaica ginger. They chat about Mehitable’s children. When Dorinda sees Rose Emily the sick woman says, as usual, that she is sure she’ll be up by evening. Dorinda goes back to the store and the old routine does not seem so boring as before.
Minnie May asks Dorinda up to hear Dr. Jason Greylock’s instructions for her mother. He wants her to leave the stuffy room and get fresh air in a hammoc, and says that the doctors who had advised she avoid cold air were of the old school. He tells Rose Emily that she will be up by summer, but later confesses to Dorinda that her friend is dying. Dorinda wonders at his not providing Rose Emily time for repentance, but he seems irritated and when Rose Emily asks Dorinda finds it easier to repeat the lie. Rose Emily is excited about making the new blue dress. Dorinda meets Jason on her way home from the store and drives her home.
Dorinda wears the new blue dress to Church, her conscience pricking her about the lost prospect of a cow. For the past few weeks Jason had driven her daily and appeared happy only when with her, but he had apparently forgotten that it was he that asked her to wear a blue dress and then had gone to dinner at the Ellsgood farm. Eudora comes to Dorindas room to see if something has upset her, and Dorinda asks why she ever married her father and how she stands her life. Eudora says religion has kept her going and when Dorina confesses that she doesn’t feel that way, says that that Dorinda’s great grandfather had said most people don’t come to God “as long as there was anywhere else for them to go” (104). Eudora tells Dorinda that there is a history of women in her family going crazy with love. Eudora says that when a young woman gets ready to fall in love, the man doesn’t matter. Dorinda had promised to meet Jason at Gooseneck Creek but she decides not to, and stays in her room.
Dorinda and Jason are set to be married in Autumn. She had held herself back from him after her conversation with her mother, and that had drawn him to her. During their engagement, feeling seems to drug and silence her while it excited him and makes him talkative. Old Mr. Greyson keeps clinging to life, and Jason hates being in Pedlar’s Mill where people seem reluctant to benefit from his advice. Once he talks about running off and getting married that day and she says she would, but he had been talking only
Stopping where her father works in the fields, Dorinda remembers how something always manages to go wrong with the tobacco and asks why he doesn’t plant something else in that field. He says he is not one for newfangled ways. At the house, Dorinda’s mother asks after Rose Emily and regrets that Nathan has never joined the church. Geneva Ellgood has gone away for the summer and William Snead, who accompanied her as far as Washington, told Eudora that Geneva said she had been engaged to Jason. When Eudora tells Dorinda this, Dorinda asks her mother whether there is anything she ever wanted very much and Eudora talks about her desire to become a missionary and the planned marriage to Gordon Kane. Joshua comes home and Dorinda brings him a drink of water. “While she stood there she was visited by a swift perception, which was less a thought than a feeling, and less a feeling than an intuitive recognition, that she and her parents were products of the soil as surely as were the scant crops and the exuberant broomsedge” (128).
Anxious because she has not heard from Jason since the day he left (he had gone to New York to buy some instruments and had promised to write daily), Dorinda plans to brave an approaching storm for a trip to see Aunt Mehitable Green at Whisting Springs. She sees Old Mathew Fairbanks en route, and he says that Jason will regret the day he returned to Five Oaks. Aunt Mehitable gives Dorinda some blackberry cordial, and when Dorinda leaves she faints outside. Aunt Mehitable, who has a reputation as a psychic, says that she has asked the embers and that it is going to be alright. “‘Befo’ de week’s up you gwinter be mah’ed,’ muttered the old woman, ‘en dar ain’t a livin’ soul but Aunt Mehitable gwinter know dat de chile wuz on de way sooner – “ (141).
Dorinda runs back toward Old Farm but the storm catches her and she has to stop at Five Oaks, where old Mr. Greylock brings her into his dingy room. He tells her that Jason is coming back that night and that he has married Geneva Ellgood. When Dorinda says that he is engaged to her, he says “I don’t doubt it, I don’t doubt it. He loved you well enough, I reckon, to want to jilt Geneva; but he found out, when he tried, that she wasn’t as easy to jilt as he thought” (152). She leaves.
Dorinda remembers a trip to have a tooth pulled when she had repeated to herself, “It won’t hurt much.” As she waits to see Jason’s carriage she tells herself, “It isn’t true. It isn’t true. True. True. It isn’t true” (157). The bugggy approaches and she sees Geneva on the seat beside Jason.
Dorinda returns home and tells her mother that she waited out the storm at Five Oaks. Dorinda leaves her house and returns to Five Oaks, remembering what her mother had once said of her own grandfather, that “He never came to Christ till he thirsted for blood” (166). She picks up a gun the old man had used to shoot a hawk that morning and when Jason comes out to put away the buggy, fires. Jason comes to her and goes on endlessly about how he never meant to marry Geneva and asking her not to give him up. She cannot think of words to say, and hurries away without speaking. When she gets home her mother says that they have been waiting prayers for her and she says that she isn’t coming because she has a headache, that hearing a chapter of the Bible won’t make it feel better, and that she is never coming to prayers again.
Dorinda remembers what has happened after she wakes up. When she goes to Pedlar’s Mill, Emily has already heard about Jason’s marriage to Geneva. Dorinda scours the store for dust and then returns home, claiming to have forgotten something and forgotten what it was. When she goes back toward Peddlar’s Mill, a man offers her a ride and she says that she is not going back yet and is only looking for some of the family’s turkeys. She does not consider an appeal to Jason. She wonders what her mother would say if she knew. “Were people like this everywhere, all over the world, each one a universe in one’s self, separate like the stars in a vast emptiness” (185).
Dorinda decides to leave on the first morning train. At home, she packs a carpet bag and hides it under the front porch. In the morning, she leaves with the carpet bag and Mr. Kettledrum gives her a ride to the station. Nathan comes running to the train with some food – Mr. Kettledrum has told him of her trip – and tells her to write back if she needs any money.
Part Second: Pine
A statue in Central Park makes Dorinda think of the big pine tree at home. She has been in New York a fortnight, staying at the inexpensive hotel a porter on the train had directed her to. She had tried waiting tables in the restaurant beneath her room, but the smells had nauseated her. She finds it easy to “pursue her individual life, to retain her secret identity, in the midst of the city” (204). She has been approached a few times about prostitution. Searching for work, Dorinda wanders into a quieter part of the city and meets a woman with an antique shop. The woman is kind to her and gives her some tea. She doesn’t need any help, but tells Dorinda of an opening for a seamstress. On her way to see about the job Dorinda observes the way women are dressed and thinks how happy some women must be with beautiful clothes and all that they want. She feels ill, stops briefly to rest, and continues but faints as she steps into the street.
Dorinda wakes up in a hospital where she has been brought by Doctor Faraday, who witnessed her fall and being hit by a cab. A nurse tells her that Doctor Faraday took a special interest in her case and tells her cautiously and indirectly that she has lost the baby she was carrying. Doctor Faraday’s wife comes to visit Dorinda, and when she is discharged she starts work in Doctor Faraday’s office in the morning and helping with the couple’s children in the afternoon.
Dorinda leaves the hospital late the next afternoon with the assistance of a woman who was there visiting a friend. She is exhausted when she gets to her old room and reflects how different things might be if she had never bought the blue dress.
Dorinda has been working in Doctor Faraday’s office for two years. Penelope Faraday is especially fond of her, and Dorinda earns her parents’ gratitude by nursing her through pneumonia. The young Doctor Richard Burch likes Dorinda and brings her to a concert – she experiences it as pure sensation.
After the concert, Richard Burch says that knowledge of theory can somehow ruin the enjoyment of music, and says that she has experienced the pure essence of sensation. They talk about how her parents are “land poor” and how farming comes down to science, and he offers to get her some books on farming and accompany her to a series of lectures. She feels at times as though the farm is calling her back, and learns about the science farming with interest. Dorinda tells Mrs. Faraday about her dreams for Old Farm and Mrs. Faraday offers to loan her the money to set up an excellent dairy and says she has a contact in a Washington Hotel that would pay high prices for good butter. When Dorinda tells Dr. Burch that she is going back, he wants to come with her but she confesses that she doesn’t like anybody to touch her. Dorinda receives a letter from her mother to say that her father has had a stroke and is dying, and she returns to Peddlar’s Mill immediately.
Rufus comes to pick Dorinda up at the train station, and Dorinda says she’ll help him leave Peddlar’s Mill when the time is right. Nathan welcomes her and says the kids are dying to see her city clothes. Minnie May has been caring for the children and helping in the store since her mother’s death, and Dorinda decides to talk to him about the girl working too hard. Geneva Greylock looks thin and unhealthy. On the way home, Dorinda thinks that nothing has changed but herself.
Joshua says he is glad to see his daughter and assures her that he doesn’t suffer. She tells him of her plans for a diary and that she has some money to start with, and he seems to want to say something, but he is unable. He doesn’t want the curtain drawn because he likes to see the big pine outside. Dorinda talks to Eudora about her plans for the farm and reflects on her mother’s minute knowledge of her white leghorn fowl. “A ray of light, which was less a flush than a warmer pallor, flickered across Mrs. Oakley’s wan features” when Dorinda tells of her plan to expand the poultry operation, and “while her mother’s interest was awakening, Dorinda felt that her own was slowly drugged by the poverty of her surroundings” (270). That evening Dorinda goes for a walk with Nathan and reflects on how she does not share the sense of humor that he has in common with the rest of Peddlar’s Mill. “She was not amused by the classic jokes of the period, which were perpetually embodied in a married man who was too fat or an unmarried woman who was too thin. Flesh of the lack of it, hats or the pursuit of them, crockery or the breaking of it; none of these common impediments to happiness possessed, for her, the genuine quality of mirth. Dorinda discusses her farming plans with Nathan and he advises her to buy some of Ellgood’s jersey cows and promises to send her some field hands. It seems to Dorinda for one moment that she has made a mistake by coming back, but she decides that she has to go straight ahead.
The field hands arrive in the morning. “Like her mother, [Dorinda] was endowed with an intuitive understanding of the negroes; she would always know how to keep on friendly terms with that immature but not ungenerous race. Slavery in Queen Elizabeth County had rested more lightly than elsewhere. The religion that made people hard to themselves, her mother had often pointed out, made them impartially just to their dependents; and like most generalizations, this one was elastic enough to cover the particular instance” (281). Dorinda counts on Rufus to oversee the field hands, but he has disappeared to cut down a tree with a beehive in it. Fluvanna is very helpful, and Mrs. Oakley remarks to Dorinda about her sunny disposition.
Dorinda goes to the Ellgood farm to see the cows, and although James Ellgood is away she talks to Bob about dairy farming. He has recently married a sickly woman who is afraid of everything in the country. He comments that he isn’t sure how the cows will take to being milked by a woman. Dorinda says she’ll wear Rufus’s overalls – she doesn’t want to hire a man at first because blacks can be lazy and not milk to cow fully, and they won’t be clean (294). Dorinda reflects on the strangeness of Bob Ellgood’s match with the sickly city woman. As Dorinda drives home, “she realized, without despair, that the general aspect of her life would be one of unbroken monotony. Enthusiasm would not lest. Energy would not last. Cheerfulness, buoyancy, interest not one of these qualities would last as long as she needed it. Nothing would last thought to the end except courage” (296). Jason tries to speak with her and she drives on, ignoring him. When she gets home, her father has died. She will never know what he wanted to tell her.
Rufus is sullen thinking he’ll have to stay on the farm now, but Dorinda says he won’t. Josiah says he can’t help much now that he is married and his wife says that Eudora can stay with them, but Dorinda says the two of them will run the farm together. Jason finds Dorinda on a walk and, in response to his question, says that he had no right to have come to her father’s funeral. He complains of his own suffering and when Dorinda expresses her indifference, calls her hard. “Her smile was exultant. ‘Yes, I am hard. I’m through with soft things’” (309).
Timidly, Dorinda starts out asking only thirty cents a pound for her butter, the first batch of which tastes like flowers. Dorinda enjoys her work and sleeps now without dreaming. Rufus comes running to the house and Mrs. Oakley hypothesizes that he has remembered the butter churn he promised to fix. He looks scared, and tells the women that they ought to have let him go away the spring before. He tells them not to let on that he wasn’t at home and then hastily repairs the butter churn. They find out why when Sheriff Wigfall comes to say that Peter Kittery has been found dead by Whistling Sping and that Jacob Kittery is convinced Rufus is the killer. The Sheriff says he has to take Rufus for the night, but looks relieved and tells Mrs. Oakley to come the next day and testify at the hearing.
Eudora looks exhausted and allows Dorinda to put her to bed. Dorinda feels that lying for Rufus will kill her mother but that she can do nothing to prevent it. Nathan Pedlar drives Eudora to the courthouse, and after wondering that Eudora prefers Nathan’s company just because he is a man Dorinda realizes that it is because Nathan does not know that Eudora plans to lie. Eudora comes back looking drained, and an oblivious Rufus brags about how well she did.
Mrs. Oakley goes to bed exhausted but insists that she is not sick enough for tea. Dr. Stout says that she is completely worn out and needs rest, and says that this is the beginning of the end for Eudora. In response to Dorinda’s comment that it has come on suddenly, he remarks that Eudora has been dying for years. Mrs. Oakley lives another year but is never able to leave her bed. Nathan arranges the funeral for Dorinda when Eudora dies. Eudora has left the farm to Dorinda.
Dorinda scrimps and works hard in the ten years after her mother’s death to bring the farm out of debt. Her human companionship is limited to Fluvanna, and Nathan and his children. She is especially close to John Abner, to whom she is endeared by his infirmity (he has a club foot). Nathan tells Dorinda that Doctor Stout has taken most of Jason’s practice because Jason is drinking and because Jason tries to please everyone and doesn’t tell them the truth about their health. Dorinda dreams of Jason and then notices that she has crows feet in the morning. She tells Fluvanna she’s been working too hard and ought to enjoy something of her success now that she has brought the farm out of debt.
Dorinda goes to Miss Seena to have a dress made, but her fingers are too old and they decide to order one out of a catologue. On her way home, Geneva stops her to say how happy she is. Dorinda drives her halfway home and Geneve tells Dorinda that she had a baby but that Jason drowned it, that she is now pregnant again, and that she has to pretend that she is happy so that Jason won’t know. She tells Nathan that she is thinking of buying Five Oaks, and he says that he had the same thought himself. A bit later, he suggests that she should marry him – they could buy Five Oaks, he could be useful on the farm, and she loves having the children around. She says that it will never happen. He acknowledges her superiority, and she repeats that there is no use thinking about it.
Dorinda goes to church in her new clothes, where Jason sees her. Nathan and the children come over for dinner, and he suggests putting a stove in the back hall to make the house more comfortable. He asks if she has thought about his proposal, and she tells him that there is no use thinking about it and that she couldn’t stand any lovemaking. He tells her that he would never interfere with her, and she repeats mechanically that it doesn’t do any good to keep thinking about it.
Three weeks pass and Nathan and Dorinda are married. The children move into Dorinda’s house. The first night of her marriage, Dorinda stays out late in the barn. Fluvanna tells Dorinda Geneva Greylock was found to have drowned herself in a pond. When Dorinda goes up to her chamber, she finds Nathan asleep on the couch. She covers him with a blanket and goes to sleep.
Five years into their marriage, Dorinda still holds Nathan at a distance. Returning from the fields one evening, Nathan tells her that Five Oaks is finally to be sold at auction. Dorinda wears her best dress to the auction. Lena wants to go too, to flirt with the men, and in a fragile dress that will necessitate their going the long way in a buggy.
Nathan bids for and buys Five Oaks at auction for six thousand dollars, and they go inside to meet Jason and sign the bill of sale. Lena comes in with them and Jason looks at her lecherously. There is a flicker of ridicule in Jason’s face as he looks at Nathan and, feeling protective, Dorinda draws closer to her husband of her own accord for the second time that day. They stay up late planning improvements for both farms, and Dorinda will look back on that evening with fondness.
Part Third: Life-Everlasting
Dorinda gives herself completely to her project of turning around Five Oaks. The gentleness of mood from the evening of the auction has lingered, but she is not more tender to her husband. Dorinda knows that the things that keeps her content is her breathless activity, and that she might be unhappy with her life if she took the time to notice. Nathan gets an abscess under a tooth and needs it pulled, but puts it off until January 20 when he is needed in Bob Ellgood’s lawsuit against the railroad. “The incident of his going was apparently as trivial as her meeting with Jason in the road, as the failure of her aim when the gun went off, as the particular place and moment when she had fallen down in Fifth Avenue. These accidents had changed utterly the course of her life. Yet none of them could she have foreseen and prevented; and only once, she felt, in that hospital in New York, had the accident or the device of fortune been in her favor” (416).
Dorinda attends to business on the dairy and wonders whether electricity will one day assist the work as Nathan has predicted. She darns one of Nathan’s socks but feels restless and is surprised to realize that she misses Nathan. This is the first time he has spent a full day away from the farm since their marriage. She reminds Nimrod that he’ll need to start out early to pick up Nathan in the snow. Nimrod returns without Nathan because the train has been delayed – Elisha Moody is waiting at the station for his daughter and will stop by with news. The wires are broken, but a train from Washington had gone down and come back up with news of a wreck down the track. Nimrod said all the freight men carried axes.
John Abner goes to sleep while Dorinda waits up for Elisha. When he comes, she invites him to put up his horse and stay with Ebeneezer so that he can get back in the morning for his son Jasper. Elisha tells her that a train has gone from the North with axes to help the train that has been stopped, but that no one knows what happened because all the wires are down. In the morning Dorinda goes with Nimrod and the butter to meet the train. Bob Ellgood and a stranger come forward form a group of men by the station and tell her that Nathan has died a hero saving people from the burning wreck. Although Nathan had not been religious, Bob Ellgood tells her that they would like to bury him in the churchyard. Something in Dorinda remains unshaken by her loss, and she thinks that she is not feeling what she should or what is expected of her.
Miss Seena comes over with a dress and widow’s bonnet from Mrs. John Garlick. Neighbors come in droves to Old Farm to pay their respects to Nathan’s widow, everyone saying, “I always thought there was a heap more in Nathan Pedlar than people made out” (455). There is to be a monument built to Nathan. There are many pallbearers, several honorary, and as they drive home from the funeral Dorinda and John Abner both reflect that Nathan would have liked to have seen the funeral and heard the things that people said of him.
War leaves behind it high prices and an aversion from work that farmers find ruinous. With Dr. Stout still in France, Jason is the only doctor and people call him only in extreme cases because bouts of drunkenness have made him unreliable. Dorinda helps to care for the sick and runs into Jason outside of one house, where they talk briefly touching on their respective fates. Dorinda comments that men like Jason ought to have been sent that the war, he says that they wouldn’t take him, and she supposes that he blames somebody else. He says, “No, I don’t blame anybody. I don’t blame anybody for anything. Least of all myself” (467).
When the epidemic ends in spring, Doringa has won the friendship of the black laborers and landowners at a considerable expense to her energy. Electricity has streamlined labor on the farm, but she still needs workers and Fluvanna helps get the Moodys, Greens and Plumtrees to work with her despite many blacks still having leftover war wages and preferring not to work until they have spent all they have. Nathan’s memory is now sufficient to fill her desire for romance. Bob Ellgood courts her doggedly, coming over every Sunday afternoon. Dorinda is unable to see a clear relationship between the person she believes herself to be and the things that she has done. “She thought of herself as a good woman (there were few better ones, she would have said honestly) yet in her girlhood she had been betrayed by love and saved by the simplest accident from murder” (474).
Dorinda is out riding and comes across the mail rider Mr. Kettledrum, who informs her with some pride that a government inspector said he thought Mr. Kettledrum’s route covered the worst roads he had seen. He tells Dorinda that Jason Greylock has been taken from his little cabin because he was found by Ike Pryde out of his head without any food on the place and sick with consumption after having let Aunt Mehaley Plumtree go six months earlier when he could no longer pay her. He says, “Mr. Wigfall told me they was comin’ over to ask if you could make a place for Jason at Five Oaks. They seemed to think you owed him a lodgin’ on the farm considerin’ you bought it so cheap and made so much money out of it” (479). Dorinda balks at that, reminds Kettledrum of how she had worked to repair the damage caused to that farm by Jason’s neglect, and says she owes Jason nothing. She suggests that James Ellgood care for Jason, but James has never forgiven him for driving Geneva crazy. “Although her first impulse, derived from Presbyterian theology, was to regard his downfall as a belated example of Divine vengeance, her invincible common sense reminded her that Divine vengeance is seldom so logical in its judgments. No, he had not ended in the poorhouse because he had betrayed her. On the contrary, she saw that he had betrayed her because of that intrinsic weakness in his character which would have brought him to disaster even if he had walked in the path of exemplary virtue . . . For it was not sin that was punished in this world or the next; it was failure. Good failure or bad failure, it made no difference, for nature abhorred both” (484).
Sheriff Amos Wigfall comes to Old Farm and Dorinda first tells him that she can’t have Jason at Five Oaks but that she will pay to have him kept out of the poorhouse. Later in the conversation, she affirms that Jason has no claim on her but says that he can stay at Old Farm for a few weeks. She brings John Abner around to the idea by making it a philosophical question and then by making it seem to come out the idea she says he himself has often expressed that, “our humanity is more important than his punishment” (491). She plans to engage Fluvanna’s sister Mirandy Moody to nurse Jason.
John Abner and Dorina stop at Dr. Stout’s on the way to the poorhouse, and Mrs. Stout tells them that the Dr. is at the poorhouse caring for Jason. They bring him to Old Farm propped on pillows and wrapped in blankets in the back of the car, and when he is dressed warmly and in his room drinking eggnog, he says that it feels good and asks whether he is at Five Oaks. Dorinda tells him that he is at Old Farm and he notes that it is the Oakley place and asks if he will stay there. Dorinda says he will stay until he is better.
Jason seems to get a little better with the dry October weather, and they take him out to the rockery during the day in Rose Emily’s old wheelchair. Dorinda wonders how much she meant to him, but the closest he gets to addressing their relationship is when he says, “You are good to me here. I don’t know why” (513) and then repeats that he doesn’t know why. She grows to expect the presence of his wheelchair when she returns from work, but one afternoon in November the wheelchair is gone and he has died. Although he has been dying for months, she realizes that it has taken her by surprise and caught her unprepared.
Despite the cold weather, compassion or curiosity brings nearby neighbors to Jason’s funeral. At the funeral, Dorinda mourns not Jason or a love that she has lost, but the love that she has never had. She looks ill when she returns home and John Abner thinks she has taken a chill, and she lays awake through the stormy night, but toward morning she falls asleep and then awakes relieved. “Life had washed over her while she slept, and she was caught again in the tide of material things” (524). “While the soil; endured, while the seasoned bloomed and dropped, while the ancient, beneficent ritual of sowing and reaping moved in the fields, she knew that she could never despair of contentment.