Marian Engel Essay - Critical Essays

Engel, Marian


Marian Engel 1933-1985

Canadian short story writer, novelist, and children's writer.

The following entry provides criticism on Engel's works from 1977 through 2001. For criticism prior to 1977, see CLC, Volume 36.

Considered one of the most articulate feminist fiction writers of contemporary Canada, Engel insightfully portrayed the ongoing war between the sexes and highlighted the few, often devastatingly poignant, options left for heterosexual women of her generation.

Biographical Information

Engel was born on May 24, 1933, in Toronto to parents who were both teachers and was raised in several Ontario towns where she claimed to have had a happy childhood. Engel attended McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. As a university student, she was actively involved in the production of the university newspaper and literary magazine, as well as in the dramatic society and debating society. One of the major influences that informed Engel's concern with the power of words and directed her approach to writing was her continuing friendships with the fellow students from her academic years, many of whom went on to teach at universities, became writers, or engaged in politics. Her travels and residence outside Ontario, including several years spent in France and Cyprus, also served as a rich source of inspiration. Engel worked as a lecturer, teacher, and writer-in-residence at universities throughout Canada, contributed stories and articles to journals and periodicals, and won many awards for her writing. She died on February 16, 1985.

Major Works

Critics have commented on the ways in which Engel's fiction seems to incorporate the various places she lived and visited. Her novel Monodromos (1973) is set in Cyprus and depicts the summer adventures of a Canadian woman abroad. Mediterranean imagery and the western Ontario landscape also inform her second novel The Honeyman Festival (1970), which depicts the experiences of a pregnant Toronto woman during a single night. In an early 1970s interview, however, Engel herself claimed that, even though she found foreign places fascinating, she was becoming more and more Canadian and that the Great Lakes region was her heartland. In Bear (1976), probably her most widely read novel, Engel sheds light on the unendurable positions in which Canadian society has placed its intelligent older women. The protagonist, Lou, who is a veteran archival librarian in Toronto, receives a commission to spend an entire summer on a river island in northern Ontario sorting out what has been left in a colonial mansion recently bequeathed to the for which institute she works. What she discovers in the colossal house on the mystical island is not so much valuable historical documents as her authentic self. She forms a peculiarly erotic friendship with a pet bear that belongs to the house, as a potential alternative to, and a possible compensation for, the humiliating and disappointing relationships she has had with men. In The Glassy Sea (1978), Engel again created a lone, middle-aged female protagonist who may at first seem simply confused about what she wants, yet who in fact embodies—and eventually manages to articulate and condemn—conventional cultural norms and feminist beliefs. A one-time Anglican nun and now dispirited divorcee who has barely survived her self-righteous, religiously fanatic, lawyer/politician husband and the battle to save her hydrocephalic and only child, Rita Bowen muses over the current status of affairs in heterosexual relationships. Rita suggests the radical solution of having all women die at age thirty or in childbirth as older women are considered useless and at the same time feared for their intelligence and independence. The decision Rita makes at the close of the book indicates that her concern is clearly not religious, but rather constitutes an ardent desire to offer refuge to the many women who have been battered or discarded. In contrast to the lucid sense of loneliness and loss that pervades The Glassy Sea, Lunatic Villas (1981) carries a generally cheerful tone. This novel is considered entertaining, even though it has been deemed of much less literary value than Engel's other fiction. The novel's protagonist, Harriet Ross, is a Toronto freelance writer who signs her weekly magazine column, with a considerable amount of honesty, “Depressed Housewife.” Harriet fiercely protects her brood of seven mismatched children as well as a few helpless friends, managing on the side to harbor a married lover. Even though Harriet's battles are endless and her responsibilities dauntingly enormous, Engel's buoyant sense of humor adds a great deal of warmth and hopefulness to the narrative. In her last published work, the short story collection The Tattooed Woman (1985), Engel featured a wide variety of characters, most of whom are disillusioned middle-aged women. In the title story of the collection a woman learns of her husband's affair with a younger woman; in response, she begins carving designs into her skin with a razor, hoping to achieve the wisdom of older tribal women.

Critical Reception

Bear is by far Engel's most controversial work. The novel's ending has been hailed by some as a victory over the misogyny of mainstream Canadian society, with which Engel constantly takes issue. At other times Bear has been interpreted as a rather passive gesture of resignation and acceptance of the status quo, not unlike the way some critics have read the closing of fellow Canadian writer Margaret Atwood's Surfacing. Critics suggest that since Engel herself scoffed at the trend to label every piece of fiction a roman a clef, it would be incorrect to see her women characters as direct reflections and outgrowths of the author. Rather, they should be regarded as literary vehicles through which Engel voiced her views of contemporary women's lives, their difficulties and strengths. Even though Engel considered herself experiential—in the sense that she tended to jump into situations—rather than theoretical or analytical, her fiction presents her feminist principles unambiguously and cerebrally, in highly charged political language.

Principal Works

No Clouds of Glory (novel) 1968; also published as Sarah Bastard's Notebook, 1974

The Honeyman Festival (novel) 1970

Monodromos (novel) 1973; also published as One-Way Street, 1974

Adventurer at Moon Bay Towers (juvenilia) 1974

Inside the Easter Egg (short stories) 1975

Joanne (play) 1975

Joanne: The Last Days of a Modern Marriage (novel) 1975

Bear (novel) 1976

My Name Is Not Odessa Yarker (juvenilia) 1977

The Glassy Sea (novel) 1978

Lunatic Villas (novel) 1981; also published as The Year of the Child, 1981

The Islands of Canada (nonfiction) 1982

The Tattooed Woman (short stories) 1985


Elspeth Cameron (essay date 1977-1978)

SOURCE: Cameron, Elspeth. “Midsummer Madness: Marian Engel's Bear.Journal of Canadian Fiction, no. 21 (1977-1978): 83-94.

[In the following essay, Cameron argues that the protagonist of Bear escapes alienation and “hibernation” by coming together with nature.]

“In this country, she thought, we have winter lives and summer lives of completely different quality.”1 Marian Engel's Bear presents the “summer life” of one Lou, a Toronto archivist, who goes to northern Ontario on a research assignment. The “winter life” Lou leaves resembles that of a hibernating animal as, mole-like, she digs among the maps and manuscripts...

(The entire section is 5818 words.)

Margaret Gail Osachoff (essay date 1979-1980)

SOURCE: Osachoff, Margaret Gail. “The Bearness of Bear.” University of Windsor Review 15, nos. 1-2 (1979-1980): 13-21.

[In the following essay, Osachoff finds the figure of the bear in Engel's novel to be a warning against romanticizing nature.]

Bear, by Marian Engel, has been taken as the perfect example of a modern pastoral idyll of the primitive type.1 Lou, the heroine, leaves a dull job and loveless sex with her boss in the city and goes to northern Ontario for the summer in search of a new identity. After experiencing love for a bear, she returns “clean and simple and proud,”2 reborn or revitalized and ready to start a new life...

(The entire section is 4046 words.)

S. A. Cowan (essay date October 1981)

SOURCE: Cowan, S. A. “Return to Heart of Darkness: Echoes of Conrad in Marian Engel's Bear.Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 12, no. 4 (October 1981): 73-91.

[In the following essay, Cowan analyzes similarities in setting, plot, and theme between Bear and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.]

In Bear, Canadian novelist Marian Engel's heroine finds her identity and learns how to live her life through an encounter with reality in the form of the wilderness. The meeting is archetypal, reminiscent of the confrontation with the “night of first ages”1 experienced by Marlow and Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of...

(The entire section is 7234 words.)

Donald S. Hair (essay date spring 1982)

SOURCE: Hair, Donald S. “Marian Engel's Bear.Canadian Literature, no. 92 (spring 1982): 34-45.

[In the following essay, Hair explores mythical and specifically Canadian elements in Bear.]

Marian Engel's Bear has received a good deal of popular attention, part of it from readers who are attracted to the sort of thing promised by the blurb on the cover of the paperback edition: “The shocking, erotic novel of a woman in love.” The promise, one notes, is, for the most part, kept, but the novel is likely to be of interest for a good deal longer than most books of this sort because it is much more than the story of a woman in love with a bear. In...

(The entire section is 5990 words.)

Coral Ann Howells (essay date October 1986)

SOURCE: Howells, Coral Ann. “Marian Engel's Bear: Pastoral, Porn, and Myth.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 17, no. 4 (October 1986): 105-14.

[In the following essay, Howells discusses Bear in the context of the Canadian wilderness myth.]

Sure, they're women's books, because they're about women and written by a woman … Remember that glorious song from The Music Man, “The Sadder but Wiser Girl for Me?” That's what I call a woman—and when I get letters and phone calls from intelligent women, I don't think the term “woman's writer” is perjorative, not at all. Who's afraid of women's books?...

(The entire section is 3811 words.)

Coral Ann Howells (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Howells, Coral Ann. “On Gender and Writing: Marian Engel's Bear and The Tattooed Woman.” In Narrative Strategies in Canadian Literature. Feminism and Postcolonialism, edited by Coral Ann Howells and Lynette Hunter, pp. 71-81. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Howells examines Engel's narrative shift between fantasy and realism in Bear and The Tattooed Woman, arguing that this shift speaks to Engel's position in feminist writing.]

Ordinary reality keeps turning on me. What I have to deal with is super-reality, that element in everyday life where the surreal shows itself without...

(The entire section is 5009 words.)

Christl Verduyn (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Verduyn, Christl. “Between the Lines: Marian Engel's Cahiers and Notebooks.” In Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice, edited by Marlene Kadar, pp. 28-41. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Verduyn examines Engel's private notebooks, or cahiers, to determine their significance to écriture féminine.]

First thought: I am hooked on orthodoxy. Kosherdom classicism. Have to learn to accept that a lot of the good things are like me, somewhat between the lines.

I am autobiographical … I am told my novels are … But...

(The entire section is 5306 words.)

Christl Verduyn (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Verduyn, Christl. “Scratching Around: Early Writings and Unpublished Work.” In Lifelines: Marian Engel's Writings, pp. 44-61. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Verduyn analyzes Engel's early and unpublished writings to explore her devotion to her writing, the evolution of her themes throughout her career, and the degree to which she realized the objectives she set out in her notebooks.]

Gap between exp[erience] & expression is what writer is aware of.

Marian Engel, notebook entry1

So you have to scratch...

(The entire section is 9092 words.)

Christl Verduyn (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Verduyn, Christl. “Translated without Transubstantiation: The Glassy Sea.” In Lifelines: Marian Engel's Writings, pp. 138-61. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Verduyn discusses the dichotomy in women's lives between life and letters as explored by Engel in The Glassy Sea.]

I was going to have to turn human again so I could think.

Marian Engel, Joanne1

There were Marys and Marthas and I knew which kind I was.

Marian Engel, Joanne2


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Christl Verduyn (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Verduyn, Christl. “Personal Papers: Putting Lives on the Line—Working with the Marian Engel Archive.” In Working in Women's Archives: Researching Women's Private Literature and Archival Documents, edited by Helen M. Buss and Marlene Kadar, pp. 91-101. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Verduyn discusses her experience studying Engel's personal archival papers and addresses questions of biographical and psychological issues related to such research.]

If this is my Golden Notebook I am getting into it a bit late. Better late than never.

—Marian Engel,...

(The entire section is 2720 words.)

Further Reading


Engel, Marian, and Graeme Gibson. “Interview with Marian Engel.” In Eleven Canadian Novelists Interviewed by Graeme Gibson, pp. 89-114. Toronto: Anansi, 1973.

Engel discusses her work in particular and her thoughts on writers and the writing process in general.

Gadpaille, Michelle. “A Note on Bear.Canadian Literature, no. 92 (spring 1982): 151-54.

Examines allusions to Victorian Canada in Bear.

Symons, Scott. “The Canadian Bestiary: Ongoing Literary Depravity.” West Coast Review 11, no. 3 (January 1977): 3-16.

Scathing critical essay on...

(The entire section is 168 words.)