Near the end of the story "What I Learned from Caesar," the narrator says, "I read my answer out of Caesar's The Gallic Wars … I misread it all, and bent it until I was satisfied. I reasoned the way I had to, for my sake and for my father's." Elaborate on how this enabled the boy to cope as a teenager (and later as an adult) and on the importance that literature can have in our lives as a way of providing solutions to our prolems.

The words of Caesar in The Gallic Wars provide the narrator of Guy Vanderhaeghe's "What I Learned from Caesar" with a heroic narrative which makes sense of his own suffering and alienation, as well as his father's. This demonstrates the way in which literature can give our individual lives context, meaning, and dignity.

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The final paragraph of Guy Vanderhaeghe's short story "What I Learned from Caesar" begins with the words:

When you clutch at straws, anything will do. I read my answer out of Caesar's The Gallic Wars, the fat little book I had carried home. In the beginning of Book I he writes, "Of all people the Belgae are the most courageous…" I read on, sharing Caesar’s admiration for a people who would not submit but chose to fight and see glory in their wounds. I misread it all, and bent it until I was satisfied. I reasoned the way I had to, for my sake, for my father’s.

The narrator's father is a Belgian who emigrated to Canada and finds that his status as a foreigner exposes him to humiliation and injustice, even in "a nation of immigrants." At the end of the story, the boy finds solace in his Latin textbook, even though, as he says in the passage above, he had to interpret the words in a tortuous manner to make Caesar's words into a celebration of Belgian heroism.

Although he does not feel the same level of pain as his father does at his failure to fit in to Canadian society, the narrator reports feeling a similar type of unease, saying at the beginning of the story:

At odd moments I betrayed myself and my beginnings; I knew that I lacked the genuine ring of a local. And I had never even left my own country.

Caesar's words, however tenuous his grasp on their actual meaning, provide the narrator with a heroic narrative which lends dignity to his life and struggle. This is an important function of literature, which does not so much solve problems as point out the universality and even the grandeur in human suffering. Tragedy is meaningful and heroic, in a way that mere sadness is not. This is what the narrator learns from Caesar, even though there is very little in Caesar's description of the Belgae with which he can identify. If he managed to gain some dignity from what he admits was clutching at straws, the reader who can see his or her own troubles in those of psychologically complex characters created by great writers may derive a much greater sense of meaning from this identification.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 26, 2021
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