Hugh MacLennan began as a historian, and, in a sense, he remained one throughout his long writing career. His doctoral dissertation, Oxyrhynchus, discussing the history of an area in Egypt during the seven hundred years that it was subject to the Roman Empire, foreshadowed such major themes in his novels as colonialism, the wanderer, the town-country antithesis, and geographical determinism. Underlying both the dissertation and the novels is a view of historical causality.
As Erich Auerbach has remarked, “Basically, the way in which we view human life and society is the same whether we are concerned with things of the past or things of the present”; a corollary of this may be that when a writer is, like MacLennan, both a historian and a novelist, his or her narratives of individual human lives will be shaped by larger forces that transcend the concerns of the psychological novelist. In MacLennan’s fiction, geography is preeminently such a force.
In both his fiction and his nonfiction, MacLennan had a continual concern for the impact of geography on character, and thus, as people make history, on action, fictive or historical. That a Canadian, living in a frequently harsh terrain and climate, would appreciate the significance of geography is hardly surprising, but MacLennan went further, adopting a geographical theory of history. His sense of geography’s interaction with psychology and history provides the ideological framework that, more than any other single factor, gives his work its distinctive character. This framework is especially useful to MacLennan as a way of putting into perspective his personal experience, for he drew less on “pure” invention than do many novelists. His method, in both his essays and his novels, was to use personal experience to support general and philosophical concepts.
This means that, fundamentally, MacLennan wrote novels of ideas; it does not mean, however, that his ideas were necessarily free from self-contradiction or that they remained entirely consistent throughout his career. His ideology, complex but ultimately growing from a sense of the fundamental importance of geography, is most explicit in his first three published novels, in which he worked toward a definition of Canadian identity by first contrasting Canada to England (Barometer Rising), then dealing with the potentials of Canadian unity (Two Solitudes), and finally differentiating Canada from the United States (The Precipice). The next novel, Each Man’s Son, is transitional in that it conveys a strong sense of the land, Cape Breton in this case, while anticipating the greater interest in psychology that characterized his subsequent novels. Even in these later novels, however, history as geography remains a basic concept. While psychological concepts became more important to MacLennan, he employed topographical images to express this interest.
Character, then, in a MacLennan novel is closely related to theme, as is plot, and the theme is tied to setting. While he created a fairly wide range of characters, including some minor figures that are presented with Dickensian humor, the central focus in his characterization was either on the “love interest” or on a conflict of generations. Both of these recurring motifs are normally subservient to theme in that the characters, whether they come together in love, as, for example, Paul and Heather in Two Solitudes, or stand apart in years, as do Alan Ainslie and his son in Return of the Sphinx, represent different value systems or cultures. Their psychology, which motivates their interactions, is seen in terms of their conditioning by history and, ultimately, by geography.
Admittedly, this emphasis is modified, especially in the later novels, by MacLennan’s concern with various ideological factors, such as Calvinism in Each Man’s Son, and by his interest in psychological theories, especially Freudianism, particularly notable in Return of the Sphinx. Nevertheless, similar imagery and recurring motifs, reflecting a sense of historical causation, run through both his earlier and later works. One finds, for example, the antithesis between the city and the country; the retreat into the woods; the theme of the wanderer, exiled from his or her roots; frequent references to weather; and imagery of trees, gardens, and water, in all of his novels.
MacLennan’s novelistic techniques did change, however, as he developed his craft, as can be seen in his plotting, use of point of view, and style. In plotting, as in many aspects of his craft, MacLennan was old-fashioned; he kept the reader interested in how the story will come out. MacLennan was by nature given to relatively happy endings, but after the upbeat conclusions characterizing his first three novels, his optimism became tempered, appearing more as a coda following climactic elements of tragedy in Each Man’s Son, The Watch That Ends the Night, and Return of the Sphinx. Voices in Time has a series ofclimaxes occurring at different points in the novel and producing different effects on the reader. That MacLennan was able to unify the various narratives included in this, the most complex of his works in its plotting, is an indication of the development of his craftsmanship.
His ability to manipulate increasingly complex narrative patterns is closely related to his mastery of point of view. Although none of MacLennan’s novels approaches a Jamesian concern for this aspect of the art of fiction, with The Watch That Ends the Night, as he moved away from straightforward chronological sequences, he slipped skillfully between first- and third-person narration. Return of the Sphinx uses third-person narration but with a shifting between the viewpoints of different characters. This novel, however, lacks what Henry James called “a fine central intelligence.” Alan Ainslie does not provide this unifying quality as effectively as does John Wellfleet in Voices in Time; Wellfleet’s perspective gives coherence to the novel’s varied narrative strands.
As MacLennan’s ability to structure his novels developed, slowly and within a fairly conventional framework, yet with increasing skill in his craft, so did his style mature. His earlier novels exhibited some tendency toward overwriting: Barometer Rising has “set pieces” that skirt the borders of sentimentality, Two Solitudes is sometimes verbose, and The Precipice is not free from clichéd expression. In Each Man’s Son, the style, reflecting the dramatic structure, is tightened. The Watch That Ends the Night contains superior passages of description, although the dialogue (never one of MacLennan’s strengths) occasionally shows some of the stilted qualities of the earlier novels. Return of the Sphinx is notable for its economy of style and in this respect prepares for Voices in Time, in which MacLennan’s style is the most fully unselfconscious and “organic.”
MacLennan, then, is a novelist whose works may be read for the pleasure to be found in an interesting story well told, but he remains a writer less likely to be remembered as a storyteller or fictional craftsperson than as a man of ideas, a dramatizer of history.
When, following his wife’s advice to write about what he knew best, MacLennan turned to his hometown, Halifax; he used it not only as the novel’s setting but also as its subject. In Barometer Rising, he was also writing of Canada; Halifax, with its colonial attitudes overlaying social and ideological divisions, is a microcosm of a new Canada. The book’s title is in large part explained in a subsequent essay, in which MacLennan describes Halifax as a barometer for the whole country.
What goes up must have been down; if the barometer rises—if, by implication, Canada faces a halcyon future—it does so only after a great storm and a particularly violent stroke of lightning. The action of Barometer Rising is centered on an...
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