Sinclair Ross Essay - Critical Essays


Despite his relatively small output and rather limited fictional world, Sinclair Ross succeeded in universalizing the human concerns of his novels. Drought, poverty, and the hardship and anxiety they cause are universal concerns, but life on the Canadian prairies in the 1930’s and 1940’s becomes in Ross’s works a paradigm of the human condition everywhere. Moreover, at its most intense Ross’s fiction evokes a characteristic mood, a synthesis of human isolation, claustrophobia, and threatening nature that serves as his trademark, making his writing as distinctive and recognizable as that of his contemporaries Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

As Ross once noted, “Most writers have only one or two themes that they constantly develop in their work.” Ross, in contrast, has three: communication, or more often the failure of communication, in human relationships; the struggle to find an authentic self and live a fulfilled existence; and humankind’s struggle against the land and the elements. In Ross’s novels, man-woman relationships, in particular, are vitiated by a failure to communicate, or even a failure to attempt communication. In As for Me and My House, the Bentleys are isolated from each other by their emotional and psychological shortcomings. In The Well, a generation gap of attitudes and values separates the old farmer, Larson, and his young wife, Sylvia. In Whir of Gold, Sonny McAlpine’s emotional immaturity and prairie Calvinist attitudes destroy his chances of happiness with the good-hearted prostitute Madelaine. Among the prairie homesteaders, poverty, climate, physical toil, pessimism about the future, and a repressive Puritan morality are hardly conducive to romance.

Writing about women in Canadian and American prairie fiction, the novelist Robert Kroetsch asks, “How do you establish any sort of close relationship in a landscape—in a physical situation—whose primary characteristic is distance?” Thwarted in their attempts at closeness, Ross’s women become domineering and manipulative (Mrs. Bentley), sexually aggressive (Sylvia), or maternal and possessive (Madelaine). Love becomes a power struggle. The women’s superior social and intellectual backgrounds, or their emotional needs, cause them to treat their men as sons rather than as lovers. As for the men in Ross’s novels, Oedipal overtones—their failure in heterosexual love, their need for mothering women, the lack of adequate father figures in their youth, for example—are present in the principal male characters and may conceal a homosexuality that Ross does not overtly confront until Sawbones Memorial. Indeed, Ross’s men seem to have better rapport with animals than with other people, and the best-written passages in his later novels are those involving animals, especially horses. Horses serve as companions or as daring symbols of sexuality, independence, and the imaginative life.

For the artist, a recurrent figure in Ross’s world of outsiders and misfits, the failure of communication is especially acute. The aspirations of the artist find little nourishment in prairie society, or—by implication—in Canada and North America as a whole. The failure of Ross’s struggling painters and musicians to communicate their vision is symptomatic of the larger failure of the national imagination. In As for Me and My House, Philip Bentley’s paintings are as stillborn as his first child. In Whir of Gold, Sonny McAlpine’s musical ambition is blunted by prairie attitudes that burden him even in distant Montreal. In this respect, Sonny, like Philip, is a typical Canadian literaryprotagonist, incapable of great art or memorable literary heroism on account of the domination of a persistent puritanism. The failed artist as modern literary hero is a familiar type, best exemplified perhaps by James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, but when the Canadian protagonist discovers he or she is in disagreement with the dictates of the system, whether religious, social, or other, a peculiar Calvinist-Puritan conditioning causes the individual to blame him- or herself, internalizing the tension and engaging in painful and destructive soul-searching in an attempt to discover personal deficiencies.

Philip Bentley’s self-absorption and his unfinished pictures of headless figures and the false fronts of the town are a measure of the frustration of his search for meaning and significance in life. In this respect, Philip and the other artist-protagonists in Ross’s fiction represent humankind’s search in modern North America for an authentic existence, either by coming to terms with a repressive social, cultural, and natural environment (the Canadian way) or by overthrowing it entirely (formerly the American way). Ross’s characters are locked into themselves and unable to find any means of escape. This in turn leads to a withholding of emotion and strained relationships devoid of real communication. Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye called the trap preventing self-realization in Canada the “garrison mentality,” the tendency of frontier societies to barricade themselves psychologically and culturally against the alien wilderness behind the ordered “civilized” propriety of a transported Eastern culture rather than adapt to the new environment. The superficial Christianity that Bentley practices, for example, is inadequate to reconcile human beings with nature on the prairie; there are hints in As for Me and My House that a natural, pastoral paganism would be more helpful. Frozen in its own negations and reinforced in the Depression by an overwhelming sense of failure, Christianity engenders guilt and self-destructive behavior (in the turning to crime of the protagonists of Whir of Gold and The Well, for example) rather than encouraging self-realizing ambition, individualism, and instinct.

Indeed, by the time Ross came to write The Well and Whir of Gold, he felt that the real wilderness is in the human chaos of the modern city. The true prairie, as opposed to the garrison, is regenerative; it is the way to redemption and self-realization. Completely alienated from society, the criminal is the ultimate outsider, but in The Well, Chris Rowe, the small-time Montreal thug hiding out on a prairie farm, does find regeneration in nature, the courage to face punishment for his crimes, and probably an authentic existence within the community of prairie dwellers. Whereas in The Well a life in nature regenerates a young criminal, in Whir of Gold, Sonny McAlpine’s experience in the city almost destroys him. The keys to his survival are his nostalgic recollections of his prairie upbringing, especially those involving his horse, which serve as an anchor of self and identity amid the disorientation and venality of Montreal.

Ross’s third major theme, humankind’s struggle with the land and the elements, probably derives from experience and observation as well as from his reading of the literary naturalists, especially Thomas Hardy. Moods are known to be affected by climate and geography, but on the prairies of Ross’s novels, as on Hardy’s moors, characters and their relationships seem to be deterministically influenced by wind, heat, drought, dust, rain, snow, and ice. The psychological and emotional toll these elements exact leads characters to regard nature as part of an indifferent, even hostile universe. Ross was also, however, the first of the Canadian prairie realists to go beyond this naturalistic treatment of the landscape; his characters are psychologically conditioned by the prairie, but they also project their own subjectivity onto the external environment. In effect, they interact with it, so that not only is character determined by external environment, but environment also becomes an extension of the mind. Its challenge can test and strengthen the endurance of those who survive, uniting them in the common struggle against it; it can be a regenerative sanctuary for an urban fugitive such as Chris Rowe.

The defeated ones find little in religion to sustain the human spirit, at least the version of it proffered by prairie Christianity. One of Philip Bentley’s redeeming qualities is precisely that he cannot believe in deliverance through a faith reduced to hollow forms and meaningless rituals that hypocritically ignore the Christian virtues of charity and compassion. In a deeper sense, however, Ross is a religious writer in that the underlying concern of his fiction is humankind’s struggle “with the implacable blunderings of Nature” in an indifferent universe. In the face of this daunting situation, Ross holds up rationalists and humanists, such as Mrs. Bentley and Paul Kirby in As for Me and My House and Doc Hunter in Sawbones Memorial, who stake their faith on human courage, reason, and idealism, “all the things that really are humanity,” in Mrs. Bentley’s words. Others, such as Sonny McAlpine and old Larson, find solace in the illusory world of the past, a youthful world of happiness and material and spiritual well-being, unthreatened by darker realities. If Ross’s characters are escapist-dreamers, however, their dreams must sometimes be blown away, like the false fronts of Main Street in a windstorm, to reveal the reality in which a new, authentic self can be forged.

As for Me and My House

As a youth in Saskatchewan, Ross was encouraged by a United Church minister to enter the ministry rather than banking. Already skeptical about organized religion, although he taught Sunday school and played the organ in church, Ross “was not tempted in the least. But I began to think, ’Suppose I did, or someone else did who did not really believe in it, and felt trapped in the ministry.’ That was the origin of As for Me and My House.” Ross has revealed also that he once knew a minister whose plight resembled Philip Bentley’s. Mrs. Bentley appears to have been based, at least in part, on Ross’s mother, to judge by his recollections of her.

Like Ross’s next two novels, As for Me and My House is the story of an inner quest for the authentic self. It thus belongs to a literary genre that includes works as diverse as John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1824), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855). It is also kindred to a large number of Canadian works in which the search for personal and national identity is a dominant theme. Ross’s ironic vision is nowhere better illustrated than in the fact that Bentley’s search for an authentic self compels him to reject the church’s way, which is to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Finally, he tears down the facade of his old self, but the new, authentic self must be forged in the secular, humanist crucible of art rather than in the empty chalice of the church. Sandra Djwa’s perception of the “latter-day Puritanism of the psychological search for self,” in a world where “Christianity has become a meaningless form without spirit, where people must learn to reject the false gods without before it is possible to find the true God within and an authentic sense of direction,” suggests the continuing contemporaneity of the book, if one thinks of the self-realization movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

As for Me and My House is a taut, intense, and bitter record of repressed, static lives in rural Saskatchewan in the 1930’s. It deals with the Bentleys’ year in Horizon, the fourth small-town prairie residence in twelve years for the thirty-five-year-old minister and his wife. Told in journal form by Mrs. Bentley, the book is an indictment of puritanical moral attitudes and cultural sterility. It is also bleakly pessimistic about the possibility of communication in human relationships, especially marriage. Outsiders by virtue of their position in the community and their parishioners’ awareness that to them Horizon is merely a way station in a stultifying series of prairie pastorates, the Bentleys are estranged from the townsfolk as well as from each other. With no real vocation as a minister of the Gospel, Bentley wants to believe he has some talent as a painter, but his daubing shows little evidence of this, mainly because his creativity is frozen by self-lacerating guilt arising from his clerical charade.

Embittered by his failure as a minister and twelve years of entrapment in drought and depression-ridden prairie towns, Philip seeks consolation through an adopted son whose natural father had abandoned him, but—in keeping with the melancholy pattern of discontinuity between the generations in Ross’s works—societal pressure (the boy’s Catholicism is unacceptable, as is his parental background) forces the Bentleys to give up their son. Philip lacks a natural father as well as a son. Having sired Philip illegitimately, his father died before he was born; Philip’s own child was stillborn. Despite, or on account of, the scorn to which his illegitimacy subjected him, Philip followed his father’s path, first into the ministry and then into art. He saw the church’s offer of an education in return for a commitment to the ministry as a means of escaping humiliation, but he had planned to leave it quickly for a painting career. He is prevented from doing so by an inanition of the soul that arises from marital responsibilities, economic conditions, and guilt over abandoning his flock. Adultery seems briefly to offer a way out for Philip, but Mrs. Bentley soon learns of it, and the other woman dies giving birth to Philip’s child. In what can be interpreted as a hopeful conclusion, however, the Bentleys adopt this child, and, with the money Mrs. Bentley has saved, they leave Horizon for a city life as owners of a used-book store. Their hope is that running the store will allow Philip time to pursue his painting without the crippling emotional and psychological...

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