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Ellen Glasgow: Vein of Iron

The idea of a vein of iron in people is a strong theme of Glasgow’s. It is the title and theme of this novel. Even the village in which it is set is called Ironside. The Fincastle family has lived there for generations. Ada Fincastle is the main character. We see her as a child, where we learn about the Fincastle family and also about Ada’s growing up. At age twenty she is engaged to Ralph McBride but, like Jason Greylock in Barren Ground, he is forced to marry another woman, in this case one who has falsely accused him of seducing her. When his wife leaves him, Ralph spends three days with Ada in a mountain cabin but both feel guilty about it.

Ralph goes off to the war in France, leaving a pregnant Ada behind. She is subject to abuse by both her family and the village children. She moves to Queenborough where she works as saleswoman to support her son. Ralph returns from the War and they marry but it is a Glasgow marriage, an unhappy one, with Ralph drinking and philandering. Her father returns to Ironside to die but Ralph, Ada and their son follow and we are left with the prospect that they will happily live their lives there.

The key theme of this book is the idea of being trapped. As a child, Ada ruminates on the idea of the trapping of mice and on the poor idiot boy, Toby, who is mercilessly teased by the village boys and whose situation she thinks worse than trapped mice. This will be mirrored in her situation when she is similarly tormented when she is pregnant. Ralph constantly feels trapped – by Janet, his first wife, by the War and then by Ada. Marriage, of course, is a perennial trap for Glasgow. Though she gives a sort of a happy ending, you get the feeling that this is despite herself. The vein of iron may win through but entrapment awaits us all.

Publishing history

First published 1935 by Harcourt, Brace and Company