Explain how this statement is true for the father in “What I Learned from Caesar”: “But the pastures we flee, no matter how brown and blighted—these travel with us. They can’t be escaped.”

This statement from the story “What I Learned from Caesar” is true for the narrator's father, George, because of George's inability to truly outdistance himself from his foreign roots. As an immigrant from urban, industrial Belgium to the Canadian plains, George tries his hardest to fit in but never quite succeeds. This outsider status defines George's character and provides the impetus for the story's dramatic conflict, which results in George's going insane with offense at being called “Dutchie.”

Expert Answers

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This statement is made by the narrator in relation to his father in the opening sentences of Guy Vanderhaege's short story "What I Learned from Caesar" in his collection Man Descending. The quote in the prompt introduces the main idea of the story: the impossibility of ever escaping the gravitational influence of the immigrant's old country to "remake" oneself in the image of one's adopted homeland.

The story is framed as the narrator's recollection of his father, an immigrant from the "urban sprawl of industrial Belgium" to the big sky and wide open grasslands of the Canadian midwest in the early twentieth century. By the early days of the Great Depression when the story is set, the narrator's father, George Van der Elst, has been in Canada for 20 years, though still displays an outsider's sense of his own place, described as "a lonely man, a stranger who made matters worse by pretending he wasn’t." Even George's "carefully nurtured, precisely colloquial English didn’t spare him much pain," and despite being a Northern European himself, George's marriage to English woman never brought him the "respectability" he sought.

Instead, the narrator's mother was "suspicious" of George, and Vanderhaege plants the suggestion that the narrator's home life might have been less than happy, perhaps aggravating George's sense of isolation and dislocation and driving him to the nervous breakdown he undergoes in the story. Like Caesar's Gallic enemy the Belgae, praised for their courage and tenacity, the narrator realizes his father "would not submit but chose to fight and see glory in their wounds."

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 26, 2021
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