Any understanding of Robertson Davies’ literary achievement must begin with an acknowledgment of the significance of his nationality to his art. Canada plays a vitally important role in Davies’ fiction. His complicated, even contradictory attitude of pride in his country and concern over its provincialism are significant and persistent threads that bring many of his novels together. Early twentieth century life in small-town Ontario is seldom idealized in Davies’ novels; instead, he scrupulously depicts it as difficult and insular. The squabbling and petty insecurities of the members of the Salterton Little Theatre are presented for comic effect in Tempest-Tost, but Davies, who had real-life experience working with such groups and in promoting the arts in places such as the fictional Salterton, would certainly have disdained such pretensions.
Provincial attitudes reign in Davies’ fictional small towns, along with rumor and gossip, and the protagonists who hail from these places seem eager to leave their limited worlds behind and reluctant to return. In terms of religion, interdenominational distrust and rivalry are recurring themes. When protagonists do return to visit their hometowns, the visits are frequently brief and uncomfortable, as when Dunstan Ramsay returns from the Great War in Fifth Business. However, Davies is fair; he willingly showcases the best things small towns have to offer, neighborly charity chief among them. Moreover, lest it be thought that Davies did not care for Canada, his record of support for the promotion of a Canadian national drama speaks eloquently against that interpretation.
Indeed, the uses to which Davies puts satire are varied, and small Ontario towns certainly receive their fair share. However, Cornish provincialism is treated very similarly in What’s Bred in the Bone, and urban pseudo-sophistication is also examined. The foibles of amateur actors are mocked in Tempest-Tost, but their goal of presenting Shakespeare to their own hometown is admirable. Protagonists are by no means immune to the satire either. Mackilwraith, the unfortunate math-teacher-turned-Shakespearean-actor in Tempest-Tost, is clearly an object of satirical amusement. Dunstan Ramsay and Francis Cornish are not satirical, exactly, but each goes through his respective story with an ironic lack of awareness of his role in the grand scheme of things. The wealthy and pretentious fare even worse in Davies’ novels. The upwardly mobile Boy Staunton is shown to be shortsighted, dishonest even with himself.
Another significant aspect of Davies’ fiction is his preoccupation with the visual and performing arts. His lifelong interest in the stage, which was his first passion, is evident in Tempest-Tost and elsewhere. Though his depiction of the production clearly shows a satirical bent, Davies is also applauding the dramatic and artistic aspirations of the working-class and middle-class residents of Salterton. No one is more aware than Davies that a tremendous amount of time and effort goes into any successful dramatic production, and he pays homage to that fact in the novel. While Fifth Business is more concerned with hagiography than with drama, the title comes from an operatic term, and conjuring (stage magic)—itself a kind of performance art—does play a significant role. The authorship of an opera libretto is also the subject of Lyre of Orpheus, one of Davies’ later novels. In What’s Bred in the Bone, the subject of artistic authenticity is analyzed, and while painting is the nominal subject, the significance is actually much broader.
Religion, in particular the conflicts and disagreements between religious denominations, also figures prominently in Davies’ novels. In Fifth Business, Davies describes in humorous terms Presbyterian attitudes toward Baptists, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics. Later, the Protestant protagonist develops an unusual preoccupation with saints and sainthood, and in the process becomes involved with the Jesuit order of the Catholic priesthood.
In What’s Bred in the Bone, the difficulty of synthesizing conflicting religious viewpoints is an important issue in Francis Cornish’s young life. He is raised Catholic in a home where his father is violently anti-Catholic, and his nursemaid is an evangelical Protestant, an enthusiastic uniformed member of the Salvation Army. In Davies’ work, no religion or denomination is portrayed as holding all the answers.
The key to Davies’ persistent but not proselytizing interest in religious matters lies, perhaps, in his interest in psychology. In the 1930’s, he read Freud with interest, but later he discovered the writings of Freud’s onetime disciple and later rival, C. G. Jung. Two important concepts commonly associated with Jung are the collective unconscious and archetypes. The collective unconscious is, for Jung, an inherited body of cultural—or species—knowledge that links the individual with everyone else, living or dead. Archetypes, located within the collective unconscious, are patterns and tropes that manifest themselves in mythology, religion, literature, and life. These concepts play significant roles throughout much of Davies’ fiction, but they are discussed most explicitly in Fifth Business.
Taken together, the novels of Davies offer a particular and yet full picture of twentieth century life in Canada and beyond. His concerns are at once the commonplace and the cosmic, as he frequently depicts the solitary individual’s flirtation with the eternal. His tone, frequently satirical but generally sympathetic, allows him to depict human shortcomings and successes with equal mastery. His three loosely connected trilogies afford his writing a scope that transcends that of many comparable writers, and his journalistic eye and ear permit him to report his subject matter in a way that is at once artful and honest.
First published: 1951
Type of work: Novel
A mathematics teacher auditions for a community theater production of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest and becomes infatuated with a young cast member.
Davies’ first novel, Tempest-Tost, draws heavily on his own involvement in community theatrical productions. While the novel uses multiple points of view, its protagonist is clearly Hector Mackilwraith, a lonely mathematics teacher who bravely chooses to vary the routine of his day-to-day existence by auditioning for a part...
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