Ellen Glasgow’s "Jordan’s End" and the Decaying South

Before the narrative starts in Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow (1946), we see a description of the contemporaneous edifice of Harrow in decay, dilapidated beyond repair. Nature has retaken the land, and the once glorious house stands as a shell of its former self. Apart from this image, the Southern Gothic and symbols of the decaying South do not necessarily appear, at least as they show up in the work of William Faulkner and Ellen Glasgow. Yerby’s novel is a historical romance, not a Gothic text, so it follows a simple, straight forward narrative. Yerby’s novel, though, does deal with decay of the South after the Civil War and counters the romantic visions of southern history that persist even today.

While Yerby does not really use symbols or the Gothic to get this message across, Ellen Glasgow uses these specific elements in her fiction, notably in “Jordan’s End” (1923), a short story that  chronicles the waning moments of Alan Jordan and his crumbling lineage. The unnamed, physician-narrator tells of his journey to Jordan’s decaying house, the family history, and his treatment of Alan Jordan’s illness. From the very beginning, the narrator paints a picture of a landscape and community in decline and near its end.

The physician begins by describing his journey through the “November woods” with the trees pressing in on him from either side and he rode towards “Buzzard’s Tree” (358). The very name of the tree, Buzzard, calls to mind a scavenging animal that does not prey on the living but the dead. When he reaches the tree, the narrator encounter Father Peterkin, a hunchback who tells the physician about the Jordan family history. Peterkin tells the narrator that the Jordan family’s deterioration began after the Civil War when Timothy Jordan “was obleeged to draw in his horns” (359). To do this, the family began to intermarry, thus contaminating the bloodline and leading to mental and physical illnesses.
As he approaches the house, the narrator sees the trees open up to display “the old brick house crumbling beneath its rank growth of ivy” (360). Like Harrow, nature has begun to overtake the Jordan estate, causing it to fall into utter decay. Likewise, Alan’s mental competency mirrors that of the house. While Alan appears physically stable, and like he could live till 90, his mental capacities show a sharp decline. Upon seeing him for the first time, the physician describes his as “lost within the impenetrable wilderness of the insane, as remote from us and from the sound of our voices as if he were the inhabitant of an invisible world” (364). The house and Alan’s mind become symbols of the South after the Civil War. Rather than being a strong region that could easily rebound, the long history of slavery and continued racism, created a region that continually peeled back the scabs to let the sores fester. The region also experienced physical and economic destruction.
Through these descriptions, Glasgow does not romanticize the South. Instead, she presents it as an “empire” on the decline. What becomes interesting here and in other texts, though, is that the house is only in decline, not gone. With a declining house, it can rebound and rise again. While the images present a region struggling with its history, they also present a region that could ultimately rebound. However, this is not the case in “Jordan’s End” because after the physician leaves his patient with some opium, Alan ends up dead in a couple of days. Alan dies from taking all of the opium that the physician leaves, and upon learning this, the narrator asks who actually killed Alan.
Did Alan take the medicine himself? Did his wife Judith kill him? Did one of the “negroes” kill him? The narrator never finds out the answer, and he never asks anyone about it. By thinking about these possibilities, the narrator links the fall of the Jordan household to various factors, and by extension, these factors can be extrapolated to the South as a region. If Alan killed himself, then the region’s pride becomes its ultimate downfall. If Judith kills him, then the continued desire to maintain a idyllic past that exists on the backs of slaves becomes the downfall. It must be noted that Judith appears throughout the story as a beautiful angelic type figure. If one of the “negroes” killed Alan, then the fractured community based on slavery and oppression led to the end.
This is not the only way to think about Glasgow’s story, but read in conjunction with authors like Yerby and Faulkner, it provides a lens to see the Southern Gothic in the story in relation to the real-life antecedent of the South in the early part of the twentieth century. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Glasgow, Ellen. “Jordan’s End.” The Literature of the American South. Ed. William L. Andrews. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. 357-368.
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