Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1881-1941)
Contributing Editor: Sheila Hurst Donnelly
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Discuss point of view with emphasis on the use of a central consciousness; provide information about the development and social implications of regionalism; instruct students about the use of symbolism and other figurative devices; prepare them for a complicated story structure. Such a general introduction will help readers appreciate Elizabeth Madox Roberts.
Until recently students have not been exposed to Roberts's work. Because her short stories are unavailable, my students are familiar with her best novels, The Time of Man and The Great Meadow. Some students find her complex structure and style of "symbolism working through poetic realism" difficult. Most enjoy the challenge; the characters many times face the perennial problems of youth. More experienced "city kids" have trouble empathizing with the rural mentality--social reality, sense of community--until the basics are explored: love, sex, birth, death--the equalizers.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Roberts is concerned with the universal, the "Everyman" theme, as it grows out of her Pigeon River community. She is preoccupied with the intimate connection between the past and the present. This connection is often reflected in her innovative stylistic techniques. Oftentimes she bounces between past and present with little warning. Many of her works develop initiation themes through penetrating dramatization of psychological crises.
Roberts's writing was influential to early modern American literature because of her introspective and poetic style, her sense of southern rural community, her concern for the individual, and her emphasis upon the indomitable human spirit. Her works are primarily concerned with the way individuals apprehend reality. Here again innovative technique comes into play.
In contrast to the novels, her stories are highly concentrated: limited in time and space and rendered in swift, artful strokes. But, like her best novels The Time of Man and The Great Meadow, her stories derive their substance from the characters. Their points of view convey the stories, which oftentimes are variations on the initiation theme. Her best stories in this vein are "On the Mountainside," "The Scarecrow," "The Sacrifice of the Maidens," "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," and "Death at Bearwallow."
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
A thorough discussion of regionalism is helpful in introducing Roberts and solidifying her important place and influence in southern renaissance literature. While a discussion of her admiration for Berkeleian philosophy may be a point of interest and investigation for advanced students, it is not necessary for the enjoyment of her work.
Roberts can be discussed against the backdrop of the Lost Generation (The Time of Man was published in 1926, the same year as Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises) as well as the movement toward an agrarian revival of the 1920s and 1930s (I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition). Today, a discussion of her Kentucky women provokes some high-powered and thoughtful commentary on women then and now. Many of her works lend themselves well to feminist and New Historical criticism.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Comparisons can be made to Ellen Glasgow, Willa Cather, Jesse Stuart, William Faulkner, and Robert Penn Warren, to name a few. She can also be compared to the many more modern female writers such as Kate Chopin, Zora Neale Hurston, Carson McCullers, and Toni Morrison. She can be contrasted to any of the Lost Generation authors. Bases for comparison and contrast lie in personal background, fictional style, theme, region, and current meaningfulness. Mainly, fruitful comparison and contrast are gained from her novels, as her characters are more complex and profoundly developed than those in her short stories. Her works can be contrasted to more short-sighted regional stories, in that they represent "small self-contained centres of life" (Allen Tate), which root in a specific geographical region, adapt to the land, create a pattern of life, and then in turn become aesthetic, taking on universal and archetypal dimensions.
In all her works, Roberts masterfully blends poetry and realism. She, like William Faulkner, is never far from the sweat and agony of the human spirit and, like Faulkner too, she believes that humanity will not only endure, but will prevail.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. How do events in your past affect moments, decisions, relationships, etc., in your present, future?
2. What sentiments do you attach to sense stimuli: smells, places, particular events, garments, etc.--the stuff of symbolism?
3. I have had special success with two types of papers:
(a) Position papers in which students take issue with the characters' responses to particular events. They engage in hypothetical arguments and bring to bear their individual beliefs. These papers tend to generate a more penetrating discussion of all that shapes a character while encouraging students to trust their own analytical skills.
(b) Explication of the text using a quote from the author about her work, which forces students to grapple with an under- standing of the author's artistic credo in conjunction with her works. For example, Roberts would say, "Life is from within, and thus the noise outside is a wind blowing in a mirror." This riddling line can be applied to many of her stories and novels, including "Death at Bearwallow."
Comparison/contrast papers with instructor's guidance are also a favorite of mine.
The Southern Review, Autumn 29, no. 4 (1984) has several essays as well as personal reminiscences.
Read Campbell and Foster's study Elizabeth Madox Roberts: American Novelist (1956).
See the headnote for a list of secondary sources and additional explication of "Death at Bearwallow" for specific references.