Chapter 68: “In This Our Life” by Ellen Glasgow (1942)

“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?”

itol_0002Joshua and I are on a real hot streak right now; we’re rifling through these novels like it’s second nature to us. Unbelievably, Joshua managed to finish an entire novel in one sitting last night! That’s how hot this current hot streak is.

I also ticked another novel off my list last night: Ellen Glasgow’s 1942 winner, In This Our Life.

I came away from this book with very mixed emotions; the majority of it, to be honest, is a real snooze fest. Then, in just a few short chapters, Glasgow manages to bring the entire world crashing down on her characters and her readers. After a couple hundred pages of “Come on already, where is this going?”, I found myself suddenly rapidly flipping page after page while anger boiled over in me. Then, the crescendo, which is supposed to resolve with a happy ending or a tragedy, dissipates into an  ambivalent conclusion which leaves the reader saddened, dumbfounded, despondent, frustrated, and anxious.

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Let me start off by saying that there is only one likeable/admirable character in this novel—a young African American boy named Parry, who dreams of rising above the lot set before him being a black man in this time. And this poor kid gets a really, really raw deal from Glasgow.

Every other character in the book, though, is, quite frankly, the worst and, quite possibly, diagnosable:

Lavinia: dependent personality disorder; a shut-in, locked away in her bedroom, and bedridden because of a heart condition; needy, whiny, emotionally unstable

Stanley: histrionic/antisocial/narcissistic/dependent personality disorder; she elopes with her sister’s fiance, she (presumably) drives him to suicide, alcoholic, unrepentant, pathological liar, willing to throw Parry under the bus for a double manslaughter that she committed while drunk driving despite the fact that his arrest will ruin his life, extremely volatile, emotionally unstable

Roy: borderline/paranoid/schizotypal personality disorder; the “normal” one until Craig decides to help Stanley – then she flies off the handle becoming very emotionally unstable, paranoid, fear of committing to a romantic relationship coupled with fear of being alone, fantasizes about “freedom”

Asa: avoidant personality disorder; the head of the household, just wants to escape, emotionally unfaithful, emotionally unavailable, hates his wife, feels empty inside, feels worthless, more than likely clinically depressed, involved in extra-marital affair, fantasizes about “freedom”

Craig: dependent personality disorder; cannot live without Stanley, cannot live without Roy, needs Asa to serve as a father figure and life coach

Peter: borderline/schizoid/narcissistic personality disorder; extremely volatile, depressed, violent mood swings, suicidal

Aunt Charlotte: dependent personality disorder; I almost feel sorry for this woman – she just wants her husband to be healthy because she knows she can’t go on without him, but she is all too willing to let him trample all over her

Uncle William: narcissistic/borderline personality disorder; very self-important, self-idolized, illusions of grandeur, flies off the handle, extremely volatile, aggressive, confrontational

You would think, that in a novel that puts a magnifying glass on one particular family, there would be at least one character that you like, at least a little bit. But no—there isn’t. The only likeable person is an outlying minor character that ends up getting shafted by the author.

That’s what made reading this book so insufferably infuriating from beginning to end. I just kept reading and reading, hoping that somebody would come around and be redeemed, but no—Glasgow ensured that I remained stuck in the mud, tires spinning, with these characters exactly as they are.

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In This Our Life is a novel that examines divides—racial, gender, cultural, and generational, in particular; the new society forsaking and disregarding the ways of the old guard, the relentless pursuit of satisfaction and happiness, the eschewing of cultural norms and tradition and vice versa, the sad realities of life that minorities faced (and continue to face), and the looming threat of world war.

These things, and Glasgow’s writing, make In This Our Life a timeless novel. I’m sure that I shared the same emotional reactions that readers in 1942 had while reading it. it is by no means a perfect novel, but it has stood the test of time and continues to be relevant.

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