In This Our Life must at once be called the impressive culmination of the creative life work of one of the few major American novelists. Ellen Glasgow’s philosophy of life is implicit in all her books-that character is destiny. Never before has it been revealed so inevitably, so passionately, as it is in In This Our Life.
Here is a model of modern times, ending a few days before the outbreak of the war in Europe. The scene is a Virginia Tidewater city. The members of the Timberlake family-mother, father, and the two young women who are their daughters-are the central characters of an intensely dramatic story, dramatic not simply for its happenings, but for the people who cause them. They are true, vital creations, these characters, and they make the action precipitate toward the concluding events of In This Our Life. Then, too (as an eminent American critic has said of Miss Glasgow, ‘She has not been merely a transcriber of life but an interpreter as well’), the book gathers in special intensity as the chief theme grows through the story. The fascinated reader sees unfolding before him an analysis of the modern mind and temper as exhibited in this family and their community. Realism informed with understanding, wit tempered with compassion, these are the qualities which have always distinguished Ellen Glasgow’s work; never have they been displayed more powerfully. And, as always, the story marches to the rhythm of that closewoven, epigrammatic, polished prose, one of the great styles of our time.
In This Our Life is a novel that looks at the differences in values between generations, and whether or not people are better or worse off with those values. The chief character in the novel is Asa Timberlake, a father of three, whose own father committed suicide after he lost everything, and who was forced, at a young age, to work long hours in his father’s old factory, under its new owner, to provide first for his mother, then his wife and children. His traditional values throughout the novel leave him tied to a wife he’s not sure he has ever loved, and who doesn’t love him back, working to provide what he can for a family that is often ungrateful.
His daughters, on the other hand, reject his traditional values and seek instead their own lives. His elder daughter, Roy, seeks to live a modern life, and give the appearance of strength, while at the same time being hurt and confused by love. His younger daughter, Stanley, is unbearably entitled. She has had her looks and her wealthy great uncle’s favor her whole life, and seeks happiness at all times, without a care to what cost that has on other people’s lives. Intrigued by these new values, and often wishing he could accept them as his own, Asa is unmistakably shackled by his own moral upbringing, though self-aware enough to recognize it and question the validity of it, though never quite strong enough to rebel against the system in his age and situation, something that comes much more easily to his younger daughters and their generation.
In This Our Life follows a similar formula to the older manners novels that won the Pulitzer, such as His Family and The Magnificent Ambersons, especially in the ways it sets up members of the older generations as sympathetic toward some of the younger reforms in lifestyle, while remaining in conflict and uncertainty with the full extent of their attitudes. There are many ways in which the younger generations, and the more progressive ideas, are celebrated and often enviable to the older characters in the novel, and at no point is the novel a direct critique of younger, progressive attitudes and ideas.
What was fascinating about the novel to me, especially in comparison to the earlier manners novels awarded the Pulitzer, was the relaxing of values over the content itself. Instead of alluding to difficult and morally ambiguous topics such as adultery and suicide, Miss Glasgow doesn’t pull any punches in addressing the issues head on and calling them exactly what they are, as opposed to merely suggesting the reality of the situation through vague language. Much of the conflict and drama of the novel, in fact, relies on divorce, remarriage, and the wish for unfaithfulness. When just the previous year, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms was written with self-censured profanities (although rather sexually explicit, all things considered), the ease with which Miss Glasgow, nearing 70 years of age, explores the sexual politics and struggles of families in a variety of contexts, and the support of her novel in awarding it the Pulitzer Prize, attest to a changing social attitude and acceptance of these topics as legitimate, meaningful, and less than obscene topics around which to base the primary drama of even the acclaimed novels of the time.
However, the most telling, and sadly most relevant, issue of the novel lies in the drama surrounding the final act, in which the youngest daughter Stanley, emotionally devastated by previous events and using alcohol as a means of coping with the harsh realities of life she has suddenly been forced to encounter and accept, kills a young girl while driving drunk and blames it on the African-American boy who has been hired to take care of her car. While the majority of the family is more than willing to accept Stanley’s indictment of the boy, her father, who has had a vested interest in the boy and worked to provide him the advantages and means towards higher education, is unconvinced, and forced to take a stand against his own family, after years and years of submitting to them and to what he understands to the be the tradition and way things work.
In a very telling scene, Stanley’s father explains that, with her wealthy family connections, the murder would mean little more than a fine for her if she were to admit her fault in it, while it would mean a trial and sentencing and years of prison for the African-American boy she has placed the blame on. Over 70 years later, and the very scene seems repeated in the news. The trial and sentencing of Ethan Couch, given probation after killing 4 people while driving drunk, has become one of the modern examples of white privilege touted today. But the reality of his situation is nothing new. It is a problem that has been around for decades. It is a problem directly acknowledged in Miss Glasgow’s novel: wealthy white people can get away with crimes that minorities cannot. It is a challenging and upsetting reality in modern culture today, but imagine how much more challenging and upsetting this acknowledgement was 70 years ago. Or perhaps, what is harder to come to terms with in looking back at previous cultures and standards: it wasn’t shocking to acknowledge this disparity because it was so popularly accepted by the masses. That the final conflict of a novel could hinge on the radically nonequivalent treatment of African-Americans in the justice system as opposed to wealthy white people, and that this was not radical or egregious justice, but rather accepted as normal, is a terrifying proposition. And the fact that this disparity is still unacknowledged by so many people today is perhaps even more frightening.
In This Our Life is by many means, another manners novel, exploring the motivations and the secrets hidden behind the masks we present when we venture our among other people, a look at the dirty secrets in our lives and the very real, often justifiable motivations behind them. It is a look at how we define ourselves and what that means for our lives. And it is a novel that doesn’t shy away from the difficult realities of our existence, difficult realities that, 70 years later, have still not been solved or even adequately addressed by society.
The sentiment might be antisocial, but it seemed to him that human beings were at their worst when they were enjoying themselves. On the whole, he preferred his fellow mortals when they were more repressed and less natural.
Why you should read it:
While much of the modernity exhibited by the younger characters, and the traditionalism exhibited by the older characters, are rather outdated today, the characters are often compelling, and the message of white privilege that appears near the end of the novel is unfortunately more relevant than ever today.
Currently reading: World’s End by Upton Sinclair